Angel is a 1937 feature directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Marlene Dietrich. It’s not the greatest film of either one of their careers, however, it is a film deserving of attention, at the very least because it’s a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Marlene Dietrich. And now, it’s also available for the first time on an American-issued DVD, by way of Universal’s Vault Series collection.
Dietrich is Maria Barker, but we first see her as “Mrs. Brown,” the false name she registers under when arriving in France. She’s “in Paris but not in Paris,” there to meet an old acquaintance, the Russian émigré, Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews). At the same time, Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) drops by the duchess’ “salon,” at the suggestion of a friend who sent him there for an “amusing time.” It’s clear by the subtle exchanges that this venue serves multiple purposes of, shall we say, obtaining entertainment. When Halton asks to see the Duchess, who is an older, rather overweight woman, Maria coincidentally comes through the door. Halton is quite surprised by how attractive the duchess is, not at all as the captain described her. Maria plays along for a time, offering to help Halton find a way to get amused (the days take care of themselves, he notes, it’s the evenings that are more difficult). Miscommunication — intentional or accidental — is an immediate theme with these two, but eventually she fesses up to the charade and, now fully enamored by each other, they agree to meet for dinner.
Dietrich during these earliest sequences is as one would expect, and as fans would appreciate. She is aggressively coy, at once reserved and provocative. She knows what men want, or at least what this man wants, but she’s playful with her obviously powerful allure. These scenes with Halton don’t immediately appear as high points for Dietrich; they’re typical, but not anything special. By the end of the film though, if one is watching Angel to see some of that famous Dietrich seduction, this is as good as it gets. By comparison, as the film progresses she is relatively tame.
Throughout the evening, Maria and Halton maintain personal secrecy. She has yet to reveal her true identity, insisting on no names and no discussion of their past. This works fine for him; he’s in love and doesn’t care who or what she is. She’s an angel, he says, so that’s what he’ll call her (we’re not so sure the name applies). That night, when his attention is diverted, she suddenly flees.
Cut to London days later, where we see that, no, the name does not apply. Maria is in reality Mrs. Barker, wife to English diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), who has been away at a gathering of the League of Nations. Barker is prosperous but not much of a charmer, and later it’s revealed that his apparent neglect is what partially lay behind Maria’s dalliance. He doesn’t even know she’s been in Paris, and as far as he’s concerned, they are a “hopelessly happy married couple,” and even when she does tell him the truth, about falling in love with another man and planning to run off with him, he thinks it’s merely a rhetorical scenario and brushes it off. He really has no reason to think otherwise, and she doesn’t bother to correct him.
The farce reaches a point of fracture when Halton and Barker meet at a luncheon. As it turns out, they served in World War I together, even falling for the same girl while they were on leave in Paris. Neither, of course, have any idea of what now connects them, remaining obliviously cordial as they reminisce. Barker invites his old associate to his house, and after hearing of Halton’s mystery love, he advises him against pursuing this “Angel,” arguing that only a disreputable woman would be in a place like the duchess’ residence.
At the Barker house, the expected confrontational awkwardness is obvious, though the hidden drama remains unspoken. In a clever sequence, the servants note that neither Maria nor Halton ate their dinner, their plates returned still full; the unknowing Barker wiped his plate clean. Left alone with Halton, Maria plays down the encounter, but it’s only a matter of time before Barker discovers the affair.
In the scenes when Barker and Halton first reunite, and later when all three main characters are together, Angel begins to reveal some of that famous “Lubitsch touch.” As we know what we know, and they don’t, there are a few sly glances and witty insinuations that keep us smiling. But on the whole, Angel lacks the delicate and risqué innuendo for which the director was so celebrated. Some of the dialogue by Samson Raphaelson, who had worked on the more befittingly Lubitsch features One Hour with You and Trouble in Paradise, is humorous: When Barker inquires about the London weather (it’s gloomy and pouring down rain), his valet tells him it’s “not bad.” But these kind of quips are few and far between.
Moments of technical flourish are also sparse. Lubitsch does incorporate a rather inventive crane shot early on, when, almost as in a Brian De Palma film decades later, the camera sweeps alongside the exterior of the Grand Duchess’ house, peering through the passing windows as it proceeds. And, again primarily early in the picture, when Dietrich is most clearly being Dietrich, Lubitsch and the great cinematographer Charles Lang seem to allude to Josef von Sternberg’s distinguished visual treatment of the actress. Her cheekbones are lit so that the deep shadows of her face play against the glowing ring that outlines her hair. There’s no doubt about it, Dietrich looks great on screen.
Angel may not be the finest film from any of its key contributors. There are undoubtedly many other more characteristic features from Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich. But this one has its moments, and in the interest of Hollywood legend totality and of preserving and distributing lesser known works, this Universal release from their archives is not at all a bad way to spend 90 minutes.