Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Marie Colverer is a woman of the streets in Vienna during the First World War. She picks up a man whom she assumes is just another client. He turns out to be Austria’s chief spymaster. He believes that Marie has what it takes to be a spy. So she becomes Agent X-27. She has always considered her life to be essentially worthless and for her this is a chance to do something that matters, something for her country. She is not a spy for money. She is motivated by love of country.
Espionage is a dangerous game but she likes excitement and she cares nothing about death.
The title was imposed by the studio, much against von Sternbeg’s wishes. He pointed out, quite correctly, that she never is dishonored.
Victor McLaglen has a good deal of fun as Colonel Kranau, a man who combines ruthlessness and whimsicality; he does his duty but always with a twinkle in his eye.
The Scarlet Empress or The Devil Is a Woman but the characteristic von Sternberg stye is still very much in evidence. The masked ball is a glorious visual set-piece. Dietrich is a very glamorous spy but then what other sort of spy could Marlene Dietrich be? If you want a tough gritty realistic spy thriller you’d best look elsewhere. This is another of von Sternberg’s movies celebrating his obsession with Dietrich (they were lovers off-screen). It’s all about Dietrich. Which is fine by me.
If there’s any theme here it is perhaps that being a prostitute is excellent training for being a spy. Marie is motivated by patriotism but it’s still a grubby and cruel game, a life of cheating and lies, of deception. And spies get treated no better than prostitutes.
It might be very much a matter of style over substance but the style is more than enough to make this movie highly recommended.