Posted by martinteller on July 4, 2012
Marlene Dietrich plays an Austrian prostitute who gets enlisted as a Mata Hari-type spy. She loves only her country, her black cat, and the piano. But when she falls for her Russian enemy (Victor McLaglen) it could mean her downfall. Truth be told, it’s a rather flimsy story and slow-moving at that, but Sternberg’s loving display of Dietrich and eccentric touches make it an enjoyable experience. One of the highlights is an extravagant ball where Dietrich seduces her first target, a baroque display of costumes, confetti, balloons and other party favors, creating a dizzying atmosphere. Sternberg also utilizes slow dissolves to great effect, as scenes linger well into the next one, or a flashback plays out as the contemporary action continues in the same frame. The lighting and framing is exquisite as well, as one would expect.
The main reason to watch, of course, is Dietrich. Her sensuality is in full blossom, with shots of her adjusting her stockings at the both the beginning and the end of the film. Her long pauses and slow blinks are like foreplay, the innuendo radiates off the screen. Being a spy allows Sternberg to dress her up in any number of costumes… in fact, it was a couple of minutes before I realized that what I thought was a minor character was actually Dietrich! She is captivating as usual, whether in loving closeup or hidden behind some gauzy but suggestive barrier. More problematic is McLaglen (who would later appear in a bunch of John Ford films I dislike), his ceaseless grinning is rather off-putting, and he did nothing to persuade this viewer that he’d be someone Dietrich would go for.
McLaglen and some general sluggishness aside, it’s certainly worthy viewing for anyone interested in Dietrich and/or Sternberg. The individual moments, the camerawork, and Dietrich’s seductive presence are all quite bewitching… I also really enjoyed the use of the cat, and it’s got a hell of a great ending. Rating: Very Good