Of the platinum blondes of Hollywood history, Marlene Dietrich is probably the most enigmatic. Her particularly androgynous erotic image - the icily glamorous man-woman in top hat and tails - has been endlessly imitated and parodied. This prismatic image, inseparably male and female, desiring and desired, gazing and gazed upon, doesn't split apart. Dietrich always insists on both.
While her status as a glamorous film star is unquestionable, her credentials as an actress are on slightly shakier ground. That indelible image tends to blot out the memory of her particular performances, not to mention Madeleine Kahn's rendition of "I'm Tired" in Blazing Saddles. But Dietrich was a better actress than the parodies suggest and her integrity is undeniable: this is a German woman, of impeccable 'Aryan' heritage, who began pouring her energies, and her money, into helping Jews emigrate from Germany when Hitler came to power. Although she herself was fervently anti-Nazi long before her adopted country of the United States entered the war, she agreed to play ethically compromised German characters after the war, giving some of her best performances embodying the tacit sympathies, shrugging apathy, and selfish comfort that she herself had abhorred. Here are her seven best performances:
7. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Dietrich has a relatively small role in this star-studded effort directed by Stanley Kramer, a flawed film that nevertheless features incredible performances by, among others, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. Like a number of German and Austrian actors who had emigrated, like Werner Klemperer, Conrad Veidt, and Hedy Lamarr, Dietrich was determined to confront the horror of the Third Reich, in part by taking on roles such as this one, Frau Bertholt, the wife of a Nazi general who has been executed. Dietrich was not happy with how she looked in this film, which she made immediately after a fourth face lift, but her performance is both humanizing and unforgiving.
6. Touch of Evil (1958)
This paranoid noir directed by Orson Welles stars Charlton Heston as a Mexican (yes, yes, I know) cop, Janet Leigh as his angelic American wife, and Welles himself as Hank Quinlan, a cigar-chomping American cop with the ethics of a mad bulldog. Dietrich, in a black wig and spangled earrings, barely has more than a cameo as a madame without much patience for Quinlan's bitter, repressed nostalgia, which she astringently diagnoses as the mental bloat that matches his paunch. Though her scenes are brief, Dietrich is in many ways the film's conscience: she lacks the desperately clutched ideals of Heston's cop, the blonde innocence of Leigh's bride, or the racist pragmatism of Quinlan. A razor-sharp irony drenches her every glance and lift of the eyebrow.
5. Blonde Venus (1932)
Blonde Venus is mostly remembered for its salacious musical numbers, with Dietrich donning a white tuxedo with sparkling lapels and, in the striptease number, "Hot Voodoo," a blonde afro and a gorilla suit. These explosively transgressive images are strange indeed in a film that is otherwise a fairly conventional melodrama about a self-sacrificing wife, whose cabaret career leads her astray from her husband (Herbert Marshall) and son and into the arms of a glamorous playboy (Cary Grant), but Dietrich's performance is phenomenal. Her sexuality was perhaps never put to better use, since it is as evident in her stage performances as it is in her stable marriage. Instead of motherhood neutralizing her eroticism, it further reveals its startling primacy. Dietrich was a rare Hollywood star who was neither femme fatale, nor girl next door, and her healthy, freely expressed, mature sexuality defined her as force to be reckoned with, even in a film as ultimately conservative as Blonde Venus.
4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Dietrich's flashy role in Billy Wilder's courtroom drama, based on an Agatha Christie story, all but upstages one of the all-time great hams, Charles Laughton, who plays the finicky barrister, Sir Wilfrid. In this film, she plays the German wife of a weasley younger man (Tyrone Power, in his final and perhaps best performance), accused of murdering an elderly lady for her money. At first, Dietrich seems cast according to type, but the twists of the plot soon lead the viewer to question whether she really is the icy-blooded, two-timing glamour puss that she initially appears to be. She, Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester as Sir Wilfrid's tyrannical nurse steal scenes from each other, nearly as rapidly as the plot upends our understanding of just who killed Mrs. French and why.
3. The Blue Angel (1930)
Dietrich's star zoomed to its zenith in this massively successful film, the first feature-length German talkie. In it, she plays a seedy, yet seductive cabaret singer, Lola Lola. Already donning her signature top hat, straddling a chair and singing "Falling in Love Again," she arouses an erotic obsession in a formerly strait-laced high school teacher played by Emil Jannings. Dietrich doesn't play Lola Lola as a vapid gold-digger. Instead she chafes against the proprietorial jealousy of her male lovers, even as she realizes that she can only survive in the tawdry clubs where she makes a living by pandering to their desires. When the pudgy professor proposes, Dietrich laughs - not out of cruelty, but because she is genuinely surprised and touched; that scene alone demands recognition of Dietrich's talent as an actress. The film is also notable for launching the remarkably fruitful collaboration between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg.
2. Shanghai Express (1932)
Another film directed by Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express, more than any other Dietrich film, exploits the exotic qualities of her beauty. Draped in exquisite gowns by Travis Banton, Dietrich exudes allure as Shanghai Lily, while the creamy ivories and whites and velvet blacks of Lee Garmes's cinematography make her appear all but otherwordly, a fallen angel in silk and lace, a rare moth flitting through snow. The style here is the substance, an orientalist fantasy so feverishly ripened that it becomes all but abstract; the plot, a pulpy tale of courtesans, opium merchants and addicts, and Chinese warlords, is essentially an afterthought. An exquisitely gorgeous Anna May Wong costars as Lily's 'companion.'
1. A Foreign Affair (1948)
This underrated comedy written and directed by Billy Wilder was filmed in the rubble of post-war Berlin and it offered Dietrich her first chance to play a role as an ex-Nazi, a task she would take on a number of times. In this instance, she plays Erika, a cabaret singer rumored to have been the mistress of either Goebbels or Göring, or both, but this time she's no Lola Lola. Erika claims she does what she must to survive, but she never quite squares her calculations with her spontaneous impulses of decency, and her collaboration is not ultimately forgivable. The film also stars John Lund, as a less than entirely scrupulous American soldier, torn between the smoky charms of Erika and a corn-fed, down-home Iowan senator on a diplomatic tour, played by Jean Arthur, a prude convinced to let her inner daffiness out at sight of Lund. Though this film can be laugh-out-loud funny, A Foreign Affair is periodically hit by the aftershocks of the horrors of the war, small moments as bitter as absinthe that make the black humor of Sunset Boulevard seem downright honeyed. Dietrich was never better, revealing the rottenness that can dwell in a human being, who simply prioritizes her own comfort over the welfare of others, not a monster, but a fellow traveler.
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