Dishonored (1931): Von Sternberg’s Erotic Spy Melodrama, Sarring Marlene Dietrich

Josef von Sternberg directed Dishonored, a pre-Code romantic spy melodrama, made by Paramount as a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, following the huge success of Blue Angel and Morocco.

Disregard the senseless plot, co-written with Daniel N. Rubin, and the strange casting of Victor McLaglen, and concentrate on Dietrich at her most alluring, elaborate set and costume design, and Von Sternberg’s control over the production, including the editing.

Set in Vienna, Austria in war torn Europe of 1915, the tale begins with the corpse of a prostitute is removed by the authorities from a tenement in the red-light district. Was it a murder or suicide?

When a fellow streetwalker offers sympathy, the concierge warns her, but the defiant woman says: “I am not afraid of life, though I am not afraid of death, either.

Chief of Austrian Secret Service, who overhears the woman’s remark, is looking for a female to serve as secret agent on dangerous mission.  She invites him up, assuming the elderly man is interested in sex, but the intelligence official poses as a foreign agent to test her loyalty.

The young prostitute, Frau Marie Kolverer, turns out to be war widow, as well as a pianist. But above all, she is attached to her pet black cat, which she carries everywhere (even behind enemy lines).

The Chief, explaining that Austrian military forces suffer losses due to security leaks, offers Kolverer compensation for her services. But she declines them, claiming that her sole motivation is to serve “the cause of Austria.” Frau Kolverer is enlisted in the Secret Service as Agent X-27.

Kolverer/X-27 is tasked with exposing suspected infiltrators within the Austrian Secret Service: General von Hindau, a native Austrian and turncoat and a Captain Kranau, a Russian intelligence officer. X-27 intercepts the officers at a Vienna masquerade ball and flirts with the suspected spies; both men become infatuated with her.

Austrian intelligence has instructed X-27 to lure General von Hindau to his apartment. There, during the faux seduction, the Chief of Secret Service places a telephone call to Hindau, requiring that he briefly absent himself and leaving X-27 free to search his personal belongings. She tricks von Hindau into revealing his device–cigarettes–for smuggling messages to the Russians. His cover blown, the General offers his compliments to X-27, retrieves his revolver and kills himself.

X-27 pursues Captain Kranau to the casino, but she is outmaneuvered by the Russian and he escapes. Reports her failure, she is ordered to disengage: the Captain “is too clever to be trapped by a woman.”

X-27 is then tasked to infiltrate Russian headquarters to acquire the timetable for a Russian military offensive against the Austrian Army. Captain Kranau searches her bedroom and discovers her official orders. He empties her pistol of cartridges and disables the phone before confronting her. They each drop their spy personas and confront one another’s methods.

Captain Kranau disparages X-27 for using her sexuality into espionage, as it cheapens the profession. She accuses him of being a “clown,” as he treats women as his personal harem. He flees rather than risk falling in love with a “devil.”

Behind enemy lines with her cat, X-27 is disguises as a dimwitted peasant, working as a chambermaid in the Russian officers’ quarters. She seduces a Russian senior officer, Colonel Kovrin, with liquor and sex, and obtains the top secret plans for the attack, via a musical composition for piano.

Captain Kranau, stationed at the barracks, observes X-27’s black cat stalking the hallway, alerting him to her presence. After a brief chase, he captures the disguised spy and seizes her music manuscript. When he performs the piece on the piano, he realizes it is a code, and burns the score.

Kranau plans to execute her the next morning,  though he has fallen in love with her. They spend the night together, X-27 drugs her Russian lover and escapes back to Austria.

X-27 had committed to memory the coded musical notation and she reconstructs the material. With the Russian secret plans in hand, the Austrians inflict a crushing defeat on the enemies’ offensive. Thousands of Russian troops are captured, among them Captain Kranau.

When Austrian Secret Service agents and  X-27 examine the Russian prisoners, Kranau is matched to the dossier description, and taken into custody.  X-27 pretends not to recognize him, but requests to interrogate him in private quarters. She permits him to escape, which leads to her arrest.  Convicted of treason, she is sentenced to death.

Kolverer, awaiting execution, requests a piano in her cell, and permission to wear the clothe that she wore as a streetwalker.  Standing before the firing squad, she declines a blindfold. After a short delay, due to a futile protest, she is shot.