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Fritz Lang more or less invented the spy thriller with Spies (Spione in German) in 1928, but it didn’t take long before everyone wanted to be a secret agent. Here’s Marlene Dietrich’s tilt, in only her second US movie, playing a streetwalker recruited by the head of the Austrian Secret Service himself, set a little test, which she passes with full marks for pluck and patriotism, and is then put instantly to work rooting out a mole (as no one called them in those days) in the service.

Dishonored’s plot is Le Carré-esque, or it would be if the doughty Marie hadn’t soon cracked the case and exposed the mole, using only her own body as a lure, allied to a lot of smarts.

This is a warm-up for the main event, the case that will wind up with Marie “dishonored” and facing a firing squad, her own physical and emotional weapons having misfired on her next assignment – to bring to book a double agent, Kranau (Victor McLaglen).

On the way director Josef von Sternberg has shown us most of the spy staples in one form or another – gadgets, disguises, exotic locations, erotic encounters, cryptic messages and code names – Marie’s is X-27 (the idea is borrowed from Spies and 007 is still using it).

It’s unusual to see a spy story from the enemy side. Dietrich was German, of course, and there was no hiding the accent, so presumably the idea is that Austrian isn’t quite as dastardly (even though the Austrians had been on Germany’s side in the most recent war) and with most of Marie’s spying being against the Russians, the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” formula is also in play. 

It was the third of seven films Dietrich would make with Josef von Sternberg, who had discovered her and made her a star in The Blue Angel, taken her to America for Morocco the same year and along the way effected a transformation in her, turning the initially hausfrau-ish looking Marlene into the sleek pencil she eventually became.

Victor McLaglen as Colonel Kranau
Colonel Kranau, Marie’s nemesis

We’re halfway there in this film and DP Lee Garmes, lighting Dietrich differently for her close-ups, takes us most of the rest of the way. Working heavily to von Sternberg’s brief – chiaroscuro, expressionistic – Garmes makes this a lyrically pretty film and as well as making the most of elaborate set pieces (an early fancy dress party is worth watching the film for alone) takes every opportunity to show what he can do.

Victor McLaglen, Dietrich’s co-star, lays it on thick as the duplicitious Colonel Kranau. If he had moustaches he’d twirl them. Gary Cooper was the first choice but he was reluctant to work with the exacting von Sternberg again after Morocco earlier that year, and in any case the rush to get Dishonored made, and strike while Dietrich’s iron was hot, ruled him out for reasons of scheduling.

The obvious inspiration for the case is Mata Hari, the exotic dancer shot by the French for spying for Germany, but attempts are made to clean up Marie as a sellable proposition. She’s obviously a prostitute, a fact made clear when Marie walks into a bar and every single working girl in the place says “Hi, Marie,” in a matter-of-fact way. But she’s also a war widow and so, the suggestion is, might have been forced into prostitution by dire need. Marie is also a woman of tone, a pianist with a classical repertoire. On several occasions the action stops so we can watch Marie play. (And it’s obviously Dietrich playing, for example, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a nice bit of added value – pay to see a movie star, get a classical pianist for free).

And Marie is a woman undone eventually by love, after she gets too close to Kranau and finds something admirable in him. Patriotic feeling and financial reward are put in their place. Masculine codes of duty are trumped by feminine emotion. “You bring something into war that doesn’t belong in it: you trick men to death with your body,” Kranau tells her early on. She’s a complex and mysterious character, this Marie, not exactly the feminist icon some people might want to make of her, but arguably she is on that road, as Dietrich was to screen immortality.

Dishonored – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood (box set including Dishonored) – buy it at Amazon

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