Of all the great movie stars, Marlene Dietrich is the one who seemed the most unearthly, at least in the seven films she made with her mentor, Josef von Sternberg. Unlike anything else from that era or since, their collaborations are precisely crafted chiaroscuro dreamscapes in which set design, costumes, cinematography, and performance are pitched for maximum visual impact. The three included in this five-debut set are cinematic heaven.
Morocco pairs the actress, playing singer Amy Jolly, with an impossibly handsome Gary Cooper as the legionnaire she burns for. This is the one where Dietrich, dressed in a tuxedo, impishly kisses another woman, and the windswept desert ending is both absurd and wonderful. Blonde Venus has a standard woman’s-pic plot?wife prostitutes self to save hubby’s life?that’s elevated to exhilarating camp by Dietrich’s ”Hot Voodoo” number and va-va-voom slinkiness; conversely, the scenes with Herbert Marshall as her husband have an exquisite tenderness. The sumptuous Devil Is a Woman plays like an S&M swoon, with Dietrich’s creatively coutured Concha Perez as a destroyer of men and von Sternberg look-alike Lionel Atwill her eager victim.
By comparison, René Clair’s Flame of New Orleans is a slight confection, but Mitchell Leisen’s Golden Earrings, with Dietrich as a lusty German gypsy jonesing for Ray Milland’s spy (the endearment ”liebling” will never sound the same), is a delight. Down off her backlit pedestal, shucked of her sequins, the goddess could be a real woman, and a very funny one at that.