The Spy Who Shagged Me
Josef von Sternberg made six more films with Marlene Dietrich, after directing her 1930 debut, Der blaue Engel. While her supporting role in Der blaue Engel showcased Dietrich's confident and empowered on-screen sex appeal, Dishonored (1931) further capitalizes on that breakthrough by featuring her as the star of a Spy Film where her missions all require her to "use her body as a weapon."
Von Sternberg's legacy is sex and glamour. Typically he also uses exotic settings, such as Austria in Dishonored. And it is in this film where one may observe his innovative medium close-ups of his lead actress, which show the woman backlit and filmed in soft focus. The backlight (sometimes called a hairlight) gives Dietrich a halo effect, accentuating her swirling tresses with silver. But another effect of the backlight, which is placed above and behind the actress, is to leave a deep shadow under her chin. This shadow gives her face a quality that makes it look like a porcelain mask, and it's funny that this film's central motif is the masquerade.
Dishonored opens with the iconic image of a formally attired Agent X-27 (Dietrich), veiled, pulling up one of her thigh high silk stockings--this image also bookends the film. Like Lola Lola, there is absolutely nothing life can throw at this woman that could even come close to cracking her icy cool veneer. X-27 is more though. She's "not afraid of life, of course [she's] not afraid of death either." And she's fearlessly clever, always up for a party, a master of disguise and just so happens to have a pet black cat with her at all times.
The film's romantic cynicism is embodied in the recompense the Austrian military gives X-27 for all of her service. In one of the more bizarre climaxes of classic Hollywood, we await the execution of X-27 before a firing squad while she smugly defies any sense of panic, glammed up and applying lipstick as she (and we) wonder if anyone would actually be able to shoot a woman who looked this good (and who, it is subtly suggested, fucked most of, if not all, the men who are raising their rifles at her--the prurient subtext abounds throughout the film).
Victor McLaglen has real chemistry opposite Dietrich. And his Russian military uniform maintains the masquerade motif--I forgot to mention, von Sternberg also spares no detail with costumes.
If von Sternberg's influence seems to pop up in some of Kubrick's (or Ophüls') costume dramas regarding mise en scène, then Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz" played during the party scene may have been partly responsible for the space ballet sequences in 2001: A Space Oddyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick). But there's no way to know--I'm probably reaching. The party is what ultimately caused my appreciation for von Sternber's delirious, baroque decorative touch. The frame is crowded with streamers and elbow to elbow party guests masked, continuously blowing party favors erect. And somehow, in spite of all of this clutter, the camera omnisciently sweeps up and down as it cranes and pans.
For me this artifact is timeless. But in a way, it's almost more risque than anything else I can think of from modern films. For instance, the scene where X-27 seduces the adjutant is uncomfortably kinky. After we follow a cut and find them drunk in his room, X-27 pretends she's a child as foreplay. Was this a request on the adjutant's part? An offer? It's a little creepy.
Finally, I'd just like to point out one more instance of how far this film goes in its unabashed camp sensibilities. In addition to the vagina as weapon of mass destruction, and the spy who somehow always gets to have her black cat with her (even when imprisoned for treasonous acts), the central plot device here is also one of the classic screen maguffens. X-27 has to find a piece of music that the Russians have that will potentially kill thousands of Austrians (Umm, how exactly?).
And I wish I could say more about the lighting in this movie. Some directors just got that knack--the play between light and shadow here are wonderfully displayed.