If Dishonored is the least known of the seven collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, the reasons are not immediately apparent. Dietrich is in top form, and Sternberg’s images are as lustrous as ever. While Dishonored has neither the literary cachet of The Blue Angel nor the baroque extravagance of The Scarlet Empress or The Devil is a Woman, it is a far more satisfying film than Blonde Venus (a turkey that is most remarkable for asking the viewer to accept that Dietrich would choose Herbert Marshall over the young Cary Grant) and at least as entertaining as Morocco and Shanghai Express.
The key to its lack of renown may have less to do with either the director or the star than with her co-star, Victor McLaglen. Playing a Russian officer who is both Dietrich’s antagonist and lover, McLaglen does not exactly give a bad performance. It is just that, veteran of action genres, and usually cast in character parts (he is probably most famous for his lead role in Ford’s The Informer), he is out of place in the coolly ironic Sternberg universe. There’s a moment in Dishonored that puts the problem in relief. At a crucial juncture, Dietrich is swept off her feet by McLaglen—literally. He picks her up and carries her to her bed which, far from suggesting erotic delights to come, registers more as coarse loutishness. The men in Dietrich films may be witty, handsome, rich or powerful, but they do not need physical strength to be sexy. Muscles and dinner jackets don’t mix.
Dishonored also has a more involved, traditional story than the other Sternberg/Dietrich films. Dietrich is meant to be a Mata Hari-like super-spy, although we have to take that largely on faith since we see her in action only twice. The forward movement of the story assures we are never bored, but it also stymies Sternberg’s ability to linger, to explore the environment and above all just to sit in raptured attention on Dietrich’s face—which is ultimately what makes their films together so special. There is no opportunity in Dishonored for something like the transcendent, ambiguous close-up of Dietrich at the height of the action in Shanghai Express, for example. A Sternberg film without much opportunity for visual flourish is almost a waste. Plenty of skillful filmmakers know how to tell a story. Only a handful could rise to the heights that Sternberg achieved at his best.
Which is not to suggest that Dishonored deserves obscurity, or that it is uninteresting visually. I prefer it to Blonde Venus, and it is more confidently put together than Morocco. (Though to say McLaglen is no Gary Cooper is putting it mildly.) It is just that by occupying that always contentious middle-ground between brilliance and failure, the speculation about just why the film doesn’t work as well as it could is not only inevitable, but sometimes more interesting than Dishonored itself.