In Josef von Sternberg’s atmospheric spin on the espionage thriller, Marlene Dietrich further develops her shrewd star persona in the role of a widow turned streetwalker who is recruited to spy for Austria during World War I. Adopting the codename X-27, Dietrich’s wily heroine devotes her gifts for seduction and duplicity—as well as her musical talents—to the patriotic cause, until she finds a worthy adversary in a roguish Russian colonel (Victor McLaglen), who draws her into a fatal game of cat and mouse and tests the strength of her loyalties. Reimagining his native Vienna with customary extravagance, von Sternberg stages this story of spycraft as a captivating masquerade in which no one is who they seem and death is only a wrong note away.
Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored—featured on the second dual-layer Blu-ray disc of Criterion’s new box set Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood—is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The new 4K restoration that has been used was scanned from 35mm nitrate film prints held by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Similar to the previous film in the set, Morocco, the encode for Dishonored is just about flawless, with no digital artifacts of note and delivering a strong rendering of the film’s grain. The improvements here are mostly in the materials, which look to be in far better shape. It’s still not the crispest looking film in the set, still soft around the edges, though I think this is just a general mix of the film’s intended look and the actual materials. But I found details to still be stronger here, with some of the finer textures in the image looking sharper. There are still some scratches and tram lines along with some slight flickers and shifts, but none of it comes off all that severe and can skirt by unnoticeable. Not that Morocco was a severe mess or anything, it certainly wasn’t, but Dishonored still offers a notable improvement over it, and it’s a gorgeous looking image.
Not as tinny and flat as what we got with Morocco, the lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack still does what it can with film’s audio, but age is ultimately still an issue. Dialogue is clear, and music doesn’t sound all that bad (at least I didn’t find it harsh or edgy) but there is still a certain flatness to everything. The soundtrack is also pretty clean but there is audible background static that can vary in volume, but it doesn’t get as bad as Morocco’s.
Criterion’s six-disc set presents several supplements spread across each film, some specific to the disc’s respective film and others working as overviews of their work. This review will focus specifically on the supplements available on Dishonored’s disc.
After a nice set of features on Morocco, offering a solid introduction to the set, the quantity does begin to dwindle with each disc, though this one still manages to pack in a few goodies. First is Dietrich Icon, a new 21-minute program featuring film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White, who talk about the Dietrich persona, the edgy personality that carried through most of her early films, at least until the production code came in, meaning there was far less of a chance of something like Dietrich kissing another woman (like in Morocco) ever showing up again. They also get into more detail about Dietrich’s private life and explain how that played into her playful onscreen persona, and then concluding with what life was like for her (and even Sternberg) after that production code came into effect. To my shame I haven’t read much on Dietrich and was fairly unaware of her background, so this, along with features found on Morocco’s disc, fill in some gaps nicely.
Criterion next includes a visual essay by Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin called Bodies and Space, Fabric and Light, which examines the look and compositions of Sternberg’s films, first showing text quotes about his work and then offering clips from the films on this set to showcase said comments. It’s a rather good presentation but at 29-minutes it outlasts its welcome.
Criterion then throws in a 2014 interview with Nicholas von Sternberg, son of the director. I guess I expected this to be more of a discussion about Josef von Sternberg from a personal perspective, and though we do get that (he recalls trips with his dad, including those to festivals) it ends up, rather surprisingly, being more technical, Nicholas talking about his father’s preferred film stocks and film equipment, and how he used light to “paint” his films. This ended up being, for me, one of the more interesting discussions in the set so far.
That ends up closing off the disc, sadly, but there is a good amount of content on here at least, and none of it feels like filler.
The set is a great one overall but Dishonored ends up being one of the stronger titles, not only delivering an impressive image thanks to a rather thorough restoration and excellent encode, but also delivering some engaging supplemental material.