Freewheelin' Pilgrim

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Dishonored (1931)

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The second film I watched on my blissful relaxation day was…

 

Dishonored 1931

 

Poster for 'The Informer'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dishonored tells the story of Austrian agent ‘X-27’ (how quaint) played by (guess who…) Marlene Dietrich during World War One. ‘X-27’ uses her looks to ‘get the goods’ on high ranking enemy officers, as well as traitors within her own army. But a narrow escape from a failed mission in capturing top Russian spy Colonel Kranau (played by Victor McLaglen), ‘X-27’ begins to question whether she can keep romance and spying separate…

 

This was the first (and so far only) Marlene Dietrich film I’ve seen, and I think it did well in capturing the essence of her ‘character’. She plays an exotic femme fatale, exuding European sex appeal. So I wasn’t really surprised in her characterisation of ‘X-27’. After watching The Informer I had expected great things from Victor McLaglen…

Sadly, I was disappointed. Dishonored is pretty much a carbon-copy of MGM’s Mata Hari which was released the same year. It’s pretty clear, having seen Mata Hari a few years back, that Dishonored was probably released to cash in on the former’s success at the box office. ‘X-27’ is pretty much Mata Hari by another name. The one difference being that Marlene Dietrich, in my opinion, is a much better actress than Greta Garbo (who starred in the titular role in Mata Hari). She slinks her way through the balls and boudoirs of enemy officers, seducing them and betraying them whilst remaining coldly indifferent to the men she condemns to death. Dietrich does well in the role, but it’s just a bad character. I think if Dietrich had played Mata Hari in a possible remake a few years later, she would have been much better, but her character is, as I mentioned, just a less-complex (and ultimately less satisfying) Mata Hari.

Victor McLaglen also does his best as Colonel Kranau, but he seems miscast. The character is a romantic ‘officer and gentleman’ type, much suited to the Gary Cooper or Douglas Fairbanks Jr. mold. McLaglen strikes me as being a rough ‘n’ ready type of actor, not one who’d waste time with romantic trifling as he does in this film. Tough, stoic men-at-arms like Sergeant Flagg in What Price Glory? or Sergeant MacChesney in Gunga Din are the only types of soldier McLaglen should have played, not officers mincing about as he does in this film. Don’t get me wrong, McLaglen is my favourite actor, and I think he’s fantastic. It’s just a case of poor casting on the studio’s part.

As mentioned, the story of Dishonored is essentially Mata Hari by another name. Female spy blah blah blah meets male spy blah blah blah falls in love blah blah blah close encounters blah blah blah will she let him escape or won’t she blah blah blah. I don’t mean to sound cynical or harsh, because I did enjoy this film. I just felt a bit, well, cheated. Josef von Sternberg (the director) and Dietrich had already made two classic movies by this time (Blue Angel and Morocco) and so I guess I expected so much better from this ‘dynamic duo’ than a rip-off of an earlier film. It just seems so…unconvincing. McLaglen and Dietrich had absolutely no chemistry and so their ‘forbidden love’ seems forced and false. Even what is supposed to be a stirring moment of pacifistic anti-war sentiment in the final scene, wherein a young lieutenant decides he’s had enough of killing and war seems tacked on to give the audience a ‘message’. It’s just not a convincing film, performance wise.

'X-27' (Marlene Dietrich) pulls a gun on Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen)

Dishonored is, though, a very stylish film. The locales are very well done, and the production values are really very good. There is an excellent scene which takes place at a sort of masked ball, complete with cascading rivers of champagne and a tonne of confetti (I would have thought that such a party in war-torn Europe would have been highly unlikely, but it’s Hollywood, not history) and it looks just fantastic. When one thinks of what was going on in Europe at the time, one almost gets the impression of a nihilistic society living by the old ‘is it not right to dance and sing/while the bells of death do ring?’ adage. It’s a very well-shot scene and has perhaps the only instance in cinema wherein flirting takes place over the blowing of party-whistles… The atmosphere is tense in one of the film’s suspense scenes, and there’s a lot of risque (for the time) humour about a hotel manager needing to continually employ new maids because “all the officers stay here…”. And the final scene is still shocking, even by today’s standards.

If Dishonored had been released a couple of years earlier or later than Mata Hari then it would’ve been a MUCH better film. I don’t know which studio copied which studio in this regard, but I’m sad to say that Mata Hari is the superior film, if only because of the strengths of it’s players. Dishonored doesn’t deliver in the character department and it is a crippling flaw. Other than that, Dishonored is well worth watching, just don’t let your expectations soar because of the von Sternberg/Dietrich partnership…

6.5/10.

 

Written by Gypo Nolan

October 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Posted in Movies

The Informer (1935)

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Hiya folks!

Last Friday was a rare day for me. I had no assignments due, I was up to date with all my readings and feeling generally swell. So I decided to give myself a reward and watched four new DVDs I purchased- all classics, of course. I loved them so much, I thought I’d share them with you!

MOVE #1

The Informer – 1935.

 
The first movie I watched was The Informer. To be honest, I don’t know why I bought it. I think I might have had a brief idolatry phase with Victor McLaglen…
Anyhow, the film is set in Dublin, during the ‘Troubles’ of the early 1920s. For the sake of those who don’t know about this period in Irish history, it involved the Irish Republican Army’s struggle against the British-backed ‘Irish Free State’ and the continued presence of British troops within Ireland.
 ‘Gypo’ (love the name) Nolan is a penniless ex-IRA member (he was court-martialled for refusing to shoot a man in cold blood) who dreams of taking himself and his girlfriend Katie to America. But, of course, they cannot afford the £20 fare. ‘Gypo’ then sees a wanted poster for a fugitive IRA member named Frankie McPhillip who is also one of ‘Gypo’s’ friends. Conveniently, the reward for Frankie is… £20. Even more conveniently, whilst lounging around at a bar, Frankie returns from (a presumably long-term) exile and chats to ‘Gypo’. ‘Gypo’ is haunted by the image of the £20 reward and goes to the H.Q. of the ‘Black and Tans’ (so named for their uniforms. They were thuggish British soldiers.) and informs on Frankie. What ensues for the next 90-odd minutes is a moral decay for ‘Gypo’ as he struggles with guilt, booze, women and the curse of money as the IRA try to discover who ‘the informer’ is…

‘The Informer’ is such a wonderful film. It’s so moody and expressionistic, like Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ only much more watchable. I kept being surprised that the director was John Ford. I honestly lapsed throughout the film and thought that a German ex-pat may have directed it. But it just proves that Ford was a durable, versatile director and not just the “Western guy” that most people think him today. The Informer is every bit a German expressionist film as it is a product of the Hollywood system.

On paper, story-wise, the film is pretty standard. The plot is typical to the gangster movies which were popular around this time. Change Chicago or Noo Yawk to Dublin; gangsters to IRA members; the cops to the Black and Tans. It’s not really anything to write home about. BUT there is so much going on beneath the surface. ‘Gypo’s’ descent into drunken boorishness and the psychological consequences on his informing on Frankie is just wonderful. It takes a sort of ‘stock’ story and turns it into a pre-cursor of the psychological thriller genre. 
There are a few good ‘Pre-Code’ moments in The Informer which I always love trying to spot. There’s a brilliant shootout, LOTS of drunkeness (hey, it’s IRELAND. And I can say that, coming from good Irish-Australian stock.) and even (SHOCK HORROR!) implications of the biggest taboo in Production-Code cinema: PROSTITUTION.
 
The best thing about this film though, is the acting. I hated Victor McLaglen for ‘stealing’ the Oscar away from Gabe in Mutiny on the Bounty ages before I saw this film (or, even before I even saw Victor McLaglen act…). But having now seen him in this film, I can honestly say that his performance in this film is better than almost any other performance given by an actor in 1930s cinema. I cannot sing his praises enough. ‘Gypo’ Nolan is just a fantastic character, and McLaglen is…I can’t even think of a word to describe just how brilliant his portrayal was. Just thinking about the final shot in the film brings me close to tears, it’s so utterly brilliant.
I read on IMDb that John Ford kept McLaglen on his toes and dishevelled to make ‘Gypo’ realistic, and it paid off big-time. Watching him, you get the feeling, the sensation, of seeing a man deteriorate, racing closer to the inevitable consequences of his action. ‘Gypo’ is one of the greatest flawed heroes or tragic villains in the history of cinema. I know that’s a HUGE call to make, but if you see this film (and I pray earnestly that you will!) I’m sure you’ll agree.

 

Victor McLaglen as 'Gypo' Nolan: Breathtakingly Brilliant.

The supporting cast were also great. I especially loved seeing Una O’Connor in a ‘straight’ role (you may remember her screeching her way through The Invisible Man or Bride of Frankenstein). She’s actually really quite moving in this film as Frankie’s ‘mudder’ and she even gets in a screech. But make no mistakes, it’s McLaglen’s film.

I give this film a deserved 10/10 and would not hesitate in recommending it to anyone. It’s a truly under-appreciated classic.

Written by Gypo Nolan

October 11, 2011 at 12:59 am

Posted in Movies