September 2, 2010

The transition from silent films to the “talkies” was difficult for many in the motion picture industry.  For many (particularly those in front of the camera), it would result in the death of their careers.  Others (particularly directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille) would go on to bigger and better things in the sound era (Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, among them).  Another such director was Josef von Sternberg, whose career began at the very end of the silent era, but whose brilliance was already apparent in the years leading up to the release of The Blue Angel.  Now, thanks to The Criterion Collection’s 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg box set, some of his early silent films are available in restored glory. My review after the jump:

Although produced over the course of only two years, the three movies in the set—Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928)—exhibit remarkable growth and development of style that foretells the evolution of cinema in many areas in the decade to come after the introduction of sound.  The earliest of the films, Underworld, is widely regarded as the first gangster picture.  Featuring a script by Ben Hecht that would eventually be the winner of the inaugural Oscar for Best Screenplay, Underworld follows Bull Weed (George Bancroft), a successful mob boss whose career begins to unravel when his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent) falls for one of his gang members (Clive Brook).  As the film that launched a genre, the story is ahead of its time.  The acting is emblematic of the time, over-the-top and melodramatic, but the set design and cinematography, while obviously shot on stages and backlots, have a roughness not common for the time.

The second film, The Last Command, is to my mind the finest of the three.  It is simultaneously an early example of Hollywood taking on Hollywood, revealing the cold brutality of the industry of dreams; a tale of honor, revenge and forgiveness; and a heartbreaking look at the collapse of a once great man as his dignity is stripped away and he loses his sanity.  In a role that would win him the first ever Oscar for Best Actor, Emil Jannings plays a former Russian general who ends up a lowly extra in Hollywood after the Russian Revolution, cast to play himself at the lowest moment of his military career.  His performance is painful, moving and inordinately realistic for the time; overall the acting, while still over-the-top and melodramatic, is toned down from that in Underworld.  Production values are also a step up, particularly in the Russian flashback sequences.

The third movie, The Docks of New York, is by far the weakest in terms of story, sporting a simple tale about a coal stoker (once again, George Bancroft) and dance-hall girl (Betty Compson) who fall in love and are married during his brief (one-night) shore leave.  But what Docks lacks in story it makes up for in other areas.  The visuals are an incredibly gritty and realistic in a manner that would not be widely seen for another ten to fifteen years.  Likewise, the acting is understated and realistic, again of a style not from the silent era but of sound a few years down the line.  Here is where von Sternberg’s genius becomes most apparent, both visually in creating a look ahead of its time but in crafting an actor (Bancroft) from his melodramatic roots in Underworld to a harsh realism in Docks.

Considering the age of the films, they look fantastic in this release.  But even The Criterion Collection couldn’t remove all damage to the aged elements without spending an inordinate amount of money.  Most dust and major scratches have been eliminated; what remain are projector wear lines and a handful of scenes in each film (probably at the reel changes) in which heavy scratching runs in all directions.  As for sound… well, they are silent films, right?  Yes, but Criterion commissioned two new scores for each film that are pleasant additions and appropriate to the style and time.

Special features include two new visual essays by film historians about von Sternberg and his work; a Swedish TV interview with the director from 1968; and a 96-page book with essays and Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld.  While informative in content, the visual essays are rather dry in presentation, but at least they avoid the trite clichés of so many studio-produced featurettes.  The Swedish interview is intriguing as a piece of archival footage in its own right, and the book makes for interesting in-depth reading.

3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg is excellent viewing for anyone fascinated with that transitional period in Hollywood’s history as the silent era drew to a close and for anyone wanting to make a closer examination of this legendary director’s work.

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