Dishonored (film)

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Original American film poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Written byJosef von Sternberg
Daniel N. Rubin
StarringMarlene Dietrich
Victor McLaglen
Gustav von Seyffertitz
Warner Oland
Music byKarl Hajos
Herman Hand
CinematographyLee Garmes
Edited byJosef von Sternberg
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • April 4, 1931 (1931-04-04) (U.S.)
Running time
91 min
CountryUnited States

Dishonored is a 1931 pre-Code romantic spy film made by Paramount Pictures. It was co-written (with Daniel N. Rubin), directed and edited by Josef von Sternberg. The costume design was by Travis Banton. The film stars Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Gustav von Seyffertitz and Warner Oland.


The story opens on the streets of Vienna, Austria in war torn Europe of 1915.

The corpse of a prostitute is removed by the authorities from a tenement building in the red-light district – a case of suicide. When a fellow streetwalker offers a word of sympathy, the concierge warns that she will suffer the same fate: "No I'm not. I am not afraid of life, although I am not afraid of death, either."

The Chief of Austrian Secret Service overhears the young woman's impressive remark. He is on the lookout for an attractive female to serve as a secret agent on a dangerous mission. He approaches her, and she invites him up to her flat, assuming the elderly man is engaging her for sex. The intelligence official poses as a foreign agent to test her loyalty. To his satisfaction, she quietly alerts a constable. The gentleman quickly establishes his credentials. The young prostitute, a Frau Marie Kolverer, is a war widow, as well as an accomplished pianist. She is very attached to her pet black cat.

Invited to the central intelligence headquarters, the Chief explains that Austrian military forces are suffering terrible losses due to security leaks. He offers Kolverer generous compensation for her services and she declines them: 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's assignment is to expose two 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. Operationally, Austrian intelligence has instructed X-27 to lure General von Hindau to his private 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 cleverly tricks von Hindau into revealing his device for smuggling coded messages to the Russians: cigarettes. His cover blown, the General offers his compliments to X-27, retrieves his service revolver and kills himself.

X-27 pursues Captain Kranau to the casino, but the Russian agent senses he is dealing with a dangerous agent. She is outmaneuvered by the Russian and he escapes. When X-27 reports her failure, she is ordered to disengage: the Captain "is too clever to be trapped by a woman."

The next phase of the operation requires X-27 to fly over the Polish border to infiltrate Russian headquarters. Her task is to acquire the timetable for an imminent Russian military offensive against the Austrian Army. Before her departure, Captain Kranau searches her bedroom and discovers her official orders. He empties her pistol of cartridges and disables the telephone before confronting her. They each drop their spy personas and confront one another's methods. Captain Kranau disparages X-27 for introducing her sexuality into her espionage: he feels it cheapens the profession. She accuses him of being a "clown" – he treats the women of the demimonde as his personal harem. When X-27 attempts to delay him with a kiss, he flees rather than risk falling in love with a "devil".

Behind enemy lines and accompanied by her black cat, X-27 disguises herself as a dimwitted peasant girl and gains employment as a chambermaid in the Russian officers' quarters. She quickly seduces a Russian senior officer, Colonel Kovrin, with liquor and sex play, and obtains the top secret plans for the attack, transliterating them into a musical composition for piano.

Captain Kranau, who is 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 atonal piece on the piano, he realizes it is a code, and promptly burns the score, confident that he has thwarted X-27's mission.

Kranau informs her that she will be put to death the next morning – but discovers that he has fallen in love with her. They spend the night together, but X-27 drugs her Russian lover and manages to make her escape back to Austria.

Unbeknownst to the Russian army command, 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, with X-27 in attendance, examine the Russian prisoners, Kranau is matched to the dossier description of Agent H-14, and taken into custody. Agent X-27 pretends not to recognize him, but requests that she be allowed to interrogate the officer in private quarters – ostensibly to extract valuable information from him before he is summarily executed. Loath to see her lover lose his life, she permits him to escape. Agent X-27 is immediately arrested. A tribunal is assembled for the purpose of convicting Agent X-27 of treason. She is sentenced to death.

Kolverer, awaiting execution, makes two requests: that she be furnished with a piano in her cell, and that she be permitted to wear the clothing in which she served her countrymen, not her country - the clothing she wore as a streetwalker. Both are granted.

In the courtyard standing before the firing squad, she declines a blindfold. After a short delay, due to a futile protest from a youthful intelligence officer, she is shot.


Sternberg based his "espionage melodrama" loosely on the exploits and demise of Dutch spy Mata Hari, with screenplay by Daniel Nathan Rubin.[1] The title "Dishonored" was conferred upon the film by studio executives over Sternberg's objections - "the lady spy was not dishonored, but killed by firing squad" - because it would distort the significance of the heroine's death.[2][3]

If Dietrich lives for love in The Blue Angel, and sacrifices for love in Morocco, she dies for love in Dishonored

Andrew Sarris - from The Films of Josef von Sternberg (1966)

The movie was rushed into production by Paramount to capitalize on the critical and popular success of Sternberg's films The Blue Angel and Morocco the previous year, both of which starred Marlene Dietrich. Oscar-winners Lee Garmes (cinematography) and Hans Dreier (un-credited art direction) served on the film.

M-G-M studios, alarmed by the competition that the Sternberg-Dietrich phenomena posed to star Greta Garbo, responded with the copycat Mata Hari the same year.[4]

Production schedules, as well as some reticence on the part of actor Gary Cooper to work with the demanding director, prevented Sternberg from casting Cooper opposite Dietrich. His substitute, actor Victor McLaglen, was not as popular a co-star for Dietrich.[5]


Sternberg's disdain for the strutting, medal-bedecked militarists and addiction to political intrigue is contrasted with the purity of a woman's feminine code of honor and "her love which transcends the trivial issue of politics." [6] In the following exchange the Court Officers pass judgment on the despised former spy X-27, "the only life-giving force in their midst"[7]

Court Officer : "Before the sentence, have you anything to say?"
Frau Kolverer : "No, I have nothing to say."
Court Officer : "As a matter of record, tell me why a woman charged with important work should permit or aid the escape of a dangerous enemy, why she should dishonor the service, violate duty because of a casual affection for that man."
Frau Kolverer : "Perhaps I loved [Russian spy Captain Kranau]."
Court Officer: "You can't make me believe you can love a man you've known for a few hours. That sort of love can be bought on the streets."
Chief of Secret Service: "I found her on the streets."
Court Officer : "You had a chance to redeem your unfortunate life in the service of your country. Can you give one reason you failed to take advantage of that privilege?"
Frau Kolverer : "I suppose I'm not much good, that's all."
Court Officer : "Will you please stand up? You have left us no choice in your case. The crime is treason and the penalty is death. You will be executed tomorrow morning at dawn. And may God have mercy on your soul."

As film historian Andrew Sarris observes: "Yet it is Dietrich who ultimately passes judgment on her judges by choosing to die as a woman without a cause in a picture without a moral."[8]


  • Marlene Dietrich as Frau (Marie) Kolverer /Agent X-27
  • Victor McLaglen as Captain Kranau
  • Gustav von Seyffertitz as Chief of Austrian Secret Service
  • Warner Oland as General von Hindau
  • Lew Cody as Colonel Kovrin
  • Barry Norton as Young Lieutenant
  • Max Barwyn as Colonel Kranau's Aide (uncredited)
  • F. Blinn as Gambler with Glasses (uncredited)
  • Allan Cavan as Secret Service Agent in Casino (uncredited)
  • Davison Clark as Court-Martial Officer (uncredited)
  • Alexis Davidoff as Officer (uncredited)
  • William B. Davidson as 2nd Firing Squad Officer (uncredited)
  • Walter Downing as Old Officer (uncredited)
  • Geraldine Dvorak as Casino Patron (uncredited)
  • Adolph Faylauer as Gambler (uncredited)
  • Joseph W. Girard as Russian Officer (uncredited)
  • Al Hart as Monk (uncredited)
  • Ramsay Hill as Grinning Officer (uncredited)
  • George Irving as Contact at Cafe (uncredited)
  • Ethan Laidlaw as Russian Corporal (uncredited)
  • Tom London as Minor Role (uncredited)
  • Wilfred Lucas as Gen. Dymov (uncredited)
  • Ruth Mayhew as Accident Victim (uncredited)
  • Harold Nelson as Fritz - von Hindau's Valet (uncredited)
  • Paul Panzer as Austrian Soldier at Interrogation (uncredited)
  • Bill Powell as Hotel Manager (uncredited)
  • Buddy Roosevelt as Russian Captain of the Guard (uncredited)
  • Scott Seaton as Minor Role (uncredited)
  • Harry Semels as Waiter (uncredited)


  1. ^ Kehr, 2012
    Riche, 2008.
  2. ^ White, 2010.
  3. ^ Sarris, 1966. p. 30
  4. ^ Chicago Film Society, 2011
    Riche, 2008
    Sarris, 1966. p. 32
  5. ^ Sarris, 1966. p. 31
  6. ^ Sarris, 1966. p. 31-32
    White, 2010.
  7. ^ Sarris, 1966. p. 32
  8. ^ Sarris, 1966. p. 32


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