L-R: Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, on set
Dishonored is a 1931 spy thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich as Marie Kolverer, aka “X-29”.
Set in during the First World War and loosely based on the life of historical spy Mata Hari, this is the third of seven collaborations between director von Sternberg and star Dietrich, following The Blue Angel (1930) and Morocco (1930). Dietrich usually played remote, independent and seductive women in these films.
In this, Dietrich is introduced as Marie, a street prostitute in Vienna who says she is not afraid of dying, and not afraid of life either. An Austrian officer recruits her as a spy to find a treacherous officer, and then sends her to Russian-occupied territory to gather information. She gets involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a Russian spy, Kranau (Victor McLaglen), and falls in love with him.
Dietrich’s roles in The Blue Angel and Morocco contributed to the evolution of the dominatrix archetype, but what matters for this discussion is her costuming. Once Marie’s information has helped turned the tide of battle, Marie becomes the only woman in a room full of uniformed male Austrian officers. This is the first time we get a full look at her black leather flying suit.
Not the first time Dietrich had worn masculine costume on film; witness her iconic tuxedo and top hat in Morocco. Also, this is only a few years after the “great transition”, circa 1920, of sexual fetishes focusing on hard/smooth materials like leather and rubber. Leather was already associated with aviators, race drivers and other dashing, adventurer-types, so it makes sense that it would also be applied to Dietrich’s character. This may also be a callback to Josette Andriot’s character (and her black bodysuit) in Protea (1913). Both had a talent for changing costumes and identities.
One of the captured Russian officers is Kranau, who refuses to speak to the interrogators. Marie interrogates him personally at gunpoint, but allows him to escape.
Marie is court-martialed for treason and found guilty. Her only request is to be executed in the clothes she wore when she served “my countrymen, not my country”, i.e. when she was a sex worker. A young officer refuses to carry out the execution, but he is quickly replaced.
Dishonored’s costumes were by Travis Benton, a prolific designer in the golden age of Hollywood. He also contributed to another von Sternberg-Dietrich film, Blonde Venus (1932).