Saturday, April 13, 2002


I loved SCARLET EMPRESS so much that I've been trying to catch other Dietrich/Sternberg collaborations. This a wondeful camp fest (though I can't believe it was meant to be received that way at the time), though not as delirious as EMPRESS. Marlene Dietrich plays an Austrian widow who has descended into prostitution and accepts an offer to become a spy, code named X-27, using her feminine wiles to smoke out Russian spies. In a beautifully shot multilevel (physically and metaphorically) scene typical of Sternberg, we see her at a masked ball dressed in a tight, dark, but spangly outfit, snaring her man. She is also suspicious of the man's friend, burly Victor McLaglen, who is in fact a spy; the fireworks between them as they alternately seduce and betray each other make up the rest of the film. In one scene, he berates her for her cheating and lying; she says, "Perhaps I don't always cheat and lie." He replies, lustfully, "The more you cheat and lie, the more exciting you become, X-27!"

The acting is a bit over-the-top by all concerned, especially when McLaglen is leering at Dietrich, which is in most of his scenes. Supposedly Sternberg wanted Gary Cooper, who would certainly have been sexier, but maybe not quite so lustful and almost obscene in his desire. One standout scene has Dietrich in disguise as a simple peasant maid at an inn where McLaglen and his men are staying; she looks completely unlike herself, so that it took me a few seconds to realize it was her with the plain face and plump body. The last scene is a famous one where Dietrich gets all whored up to face a firing squad (in her cell, she asks for a mirror to fix her makeup and has a large shiny sword thrust in her face). Overall, it's something of a mess, but a wonderfully excessive one.

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