Josef von Sternberg made Dishonored in 1931 with his new star, Marlene Dietrich, the year after the release of his first two films with her, The Blue Angel, and Morocco. This was a star turn for Dietrich, but also a personal showcase for von Sternberg. He not only directed the film, but also produced the original story, wrote the screenplay, edited the film, and composed original music for it. The cinematographer was once again, as with Morocco, the legendary Lee Garmes, but von Sternberg had a commanding influence, as he did with all of his films, on the visual presentation and pictorial style, as well. The story is loosely based on the life of famous World War I spy, Mata Hari, but von Sternberg translated the setting to his native Vienna. Since the story takes place in 1915, a year in which von Sternberg reached his 21st year, it is probably imbued with some of his own personal recollections about time and place. Although Dishonored does not reach the peak of some of von Sternberg’s poetic masterpieces, it is still superior, in my view, to the 1932 Greta Garbo vehicle, Mata Hari. In addition, there are a number of elements in Dishonored that make it interesting, notably the truly fabulous masked ball sequence and von Sternberg’s sentiments on war and honor.
Von Sternberg’s narrative can be roughly partitioned into five acts that involve a life-and-death rivalry between Dietrich and her male co-star, Victor McLaglen.
1. Establishing introduction. Dietrich is introduced as a streetwalker in Vienna. We will later learn that her name is Marie Kolverer, the widow of a captain killed in the war. She is recruited by the Austrian Secret Service Chief, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz, to use her womanly charms in service of the Austrian war effort by operating as a spy. There is already an excessive amount of posturing going on between Dietrich and von Seyffertitz, and this will continue throughout the film to the detriment of the overall impact. In this act, we learn that Kolverer is an accomplished pianist and has a pet black cat, which will be important plot elements later.
2. Vienna intrigue. The second act is introduced by a spectacular masked ball scene, one of von Sternberg’s very finest visual presentations. With the characters all in masked costumes and paper streamers and helium-filled balloons flying about everywhere so that the shots are partially occluded by the streamers, von Sternberg uses continually moving light and shadows to create a magical atmosphere. There is also expert use of separation shots to create a sense of space within the party setting. Gradually, we are introduced to two other characters whom Dietrich is supposed to track, Colonel Kranau (McLaglen) and Colonel von Hindau.
Von Hindau, charmed by Dietrich, invites her to his apartment, where Dietrich shows off her pianist skills again and eventually discovers proof that von Hindau is a traitorous spy giving information to the Russian army. When exposed, von Hindau commits suicide, and Dietrich goes off to a casino to catch his partner, Kranau. Kranau, of course, is also strongly attracted by Dietrich’s charms. It's notable that McLaglen, as Kranau, displays the same physical arrogance towards women that Cooper showed off in Morocco. This is a continuing theme with von Sternberg. Unfortunately however, McLaglen does not offer the underlying sensitivity that was lurking in Cooper, and so he and Dietrich never achieve the romantic chemistry that was on display in Morocco. McLaglen manages to outsmart Dietrich in this scene and gets away, and Dietrich goes back to the piano to show off her skills once more.
3. The Polish border. Dietrich is now assigned to spy on the Russian army headquarters near the Polish border, and she goes there disguised as a plain-looking servant. The scene in which she seduces a Russian adjutant and makes him drunk is famous, but I find it forced and charmless. Apparently we have seen enough of Ms. Kolverer’s (Dietrich’s) piano playing to accept that she is a musical prodigy. Consequently, I suppose, we shouldn't be surprised when she transliterates the Russian army's plans that she has found into musical notation and then hides the paper with her things. McLaglen (Kranau), a Russian army officer, is also at the scene and knows from his previous encounter with Dietrich that she will be coming to spy on them. Noticing Kolverer’s black cat, he catches her and finds the musical score, which he immediately assumes is a secret message. He plays it out on the piano, but cannot figure out what it means, so he burns the score, just to make sure her message does not get back to the Austrian army. He also tells Kolverer that, even though he is charmed by her, she will have to be executed as a spy in the morning. This news does not prevent the two of them from making love that night. In the morning, though, Dietrich manages to escape by spiking Kranau’s drink and makes it back to the Austrian army.
4. Kolverer back with Austrian army. We now learn that when Kranau played Kolverer’s atonal music on the piano, she committed it to memory. Now back with the Austrian Secret Service, she plays the piece on the piano from memory and transcodes it back into a decodable message. With information about the Russian army’s plans, the Austrians defeat the Russians, and many Russian soldiers are taken prisoner, including Kranau. As the Russian prisoners are paraded past their Austrian captors, they are asked to state their names, and on the soundtrack we hear one of them identifying himself as "Ivan Turgenev". So it seems that Hollywood in-jokes are not just a recent phenomenon. Dietrich is present when Kranau is identified, and she asks permission to interrogate him alone in order to find out what he knows. But when she is alone with him, she lets him steal her pistol, and he escapes.
5. The Final Verdict. Kolverer is court-martialed and convicted of treason for allowing a key prisoner to escape simply because of some casual affection. Dietrich responds softly in her defence that perhaps she actually loved him. Her court accuser then reminds her that she was only with Kranau for a few hours -- that’s the kind of love that can be bought on the streets, he says, dismissively. Dietrich responds, with her characteristic irony, “I suppose I’m not much good.” When she is to go before the firing squad, she asks to wear the clothes she wore when she served her countrymen (as a streetwalker) and not when she served her country. She also asks for a piano and plays the piano in her cell for the final time. When she is about to be shot, the young soldier commanding the execution artillery refuses to order fire, protesting that this is simply murder. But he is replaced, and Kolverer is executed, to end the film. This execution scene evidently reflects the actual execution of Mata Hari quite closely.
The weakest aspect of Dishonored is the artificial posturing and gesturing of Dietrich, herself. This is perhaps a holdover manner of expression from the silent-film days, where it was needed to compensate for the absence of verbal expression. But although that may have been effective in silent films, the sense of immediacy and presence that is produced by sound here serves to expose the artificiality of those stylised gestures. In particular, Dietrich’s flamboyantly mannered piano-playing scenes are so overplayed that they distance the viewer from the necessary suspension of disbelief required for appreciating the story.
On the positive side Von Sternberg's characteristically enchanting cinematography and mise en scene are again on display to enhance the proceedings. There are long, slow dissolve shots which are used effectively to depict how Kranau and Kolverer each managed to recollect past moments in order to figure out how to outsmart the other on various occasions in their extended cat-and-mouse game.
But perhaps the strongest and most interesting aspects of the film are the anti-war sentiments and Dietrich’s increasingly refined expression of feminine irony. To the men, both for Cooper in Morocco and McLaglen in Dishonored, the serious activities and roles to play in life involve the conduct of war, whereas love is just a game, an amusement. But for Dietrich, and by inference for all women, the most serious activity is love and preserving the lives of one's beloved -- war is secondary. From socetey's perspective, Dietrich’s role as a spy and an entertainer of men is considered to be the most dishonourable form of conduct. She expresses ironic resignation, that, yes, that is society’s verdict -- she has no answer, and there is no counter-argument offered. But the irony in that expression is visible to the viewer. We see that war is actually mindless savagery, and that human love is the truly ennobling undertaking.