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Dishonored (January 16, 2014)

According to Sternberg biographer John Baxter, Dishonored completed filming before the release of Morocco in December, 1930. MGM was considering producing its own film about a female spy in World War I, the Garbo vehicle Mata Hari. Baxter suggests that Paramount and Sternberg were eager to release their film before MGM could release theirs. The script was by Daniel N. Rubin, from a story by Sternberg. Three key contributors from Morocco again participated: Lee Garmes as cinematographer, Hans Dreier as art director and Travis Banton as costume designer. The movie was released in April, 1931. Victor McLaglen, who was later to find a place in many John Ford movies, often as the Irish cavalry sergeant, played opposite Dietrich, with Gustav von Seyffertitz and Warner Oland in supporting roles.

Baxter wrote “At times, Dishonored is less spy story than Lubitsch-style sex comedy”. Director Ernst Lubitsch was, at the time, making musical comedies at Paramount. Baxter noted recurring characteristics we have already seen and will see in upcoming movies, like the “streamer-clogged masked ball.” Warner Oland’s Colonel von Hindau he called “the equivalent of (Menjou’s) La Bessiere in Morocco. . .the bearded, impeccably dressed von Sternberg look-alike” entranced with Marlene Dietrich. I’d mention, as well, the slow dissolves between scenes which became a hallmark of Sternberg’s style in this and future films.

The critic Dave Kehr called the Dietrich-von Sternberg films “works of breathtaking formal beauty, profound moral philosophy and devastating wit. In many ways they seem apart from, and perhaps in advance of, their time. The near-abstract quality of the images — throbbing, sinuous, ever-shifting patterns composed in black and white and all the gradations in between — anticipates an American avant-garde movement that would not flower until the late 1940s. . .” As you’ve noticed, and as seems often to be the case in early talkies, the silent parts of these movies take on special weight. Silent movies told the story through visuals only and Dishonored’s story is to a great extent told the same way. Intertitles are used too. There are some moments where the handling of background sound behind dialogue seems uncertain. For Sternberg the visuals are overwhelmingly central to the films he made, the scripts less so. Dave Kehr, while admiring the impact of these movies’ images, noted their “self-consciously preposterous narratives, with their wild melodramatic coincidences.” The director Luis Buñuel, who at that time was working at MGM, reportedly found the plot predictable. Mordaunt Hall in his 1931 New York Times review wrote that Dishonored was “a highly satisfactory entertainment.” I hope you find it so as we watch it together tonight.