Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook, Fred Kohler, Helen Lynch, Larry Semon, Jerry Mandy, Emil Jannings, William Powell, Jack Raymond, Nicholas Soussanin, Michael Visaroff, Fritz Feld, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Clyde Cook, Mitchell Lewis, Gustav von Seyffertitz
Written by: Charles Furthman, Ben Hecht, Robert N. Lee, George Marion Jr., Lajos Biró, John F. Goodrich, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Josef von Sternberg, Jules Furthman, Julian Johnson
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 245
Date: 10/08/2019

3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Before Marlene

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Included among the "Pantheon" of Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema rankings, Josef von Sternberg is best known for the seven films he made with his muse Marlene Dietrich. A case could be made that those are still his best films, but the Criterion Collection's 2019 Blu-ray box set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg (which was previously released on DVD in 2010) attempts to show that the director was already in command of his medium before Dietrich came along. While there's certainly some evidence of this in the first two films, Underworld (1927) is arguably more Ben Hecht's film, and The Last Command (1928) arguably belongs to Emil Jannings. However, the third, The Docks of New York (1928), is a full-fledged masterpiece, and it alone showcases Sternberg as a master.

Underworld is often cited as the first real Hollywood gangster film, and it won Ben Hecht an Oscar for Best Story during the very first year of those awards. It looks forward to Hecht's infamous work on Scarface, and even includes some similar elements. Gangster "Bull" Weed (George Bancroft) plucks a former lawyer, "Rolls Royce" Wensel (Clive Brook) from an alcoholic stupor and brings him into his criminal fold. He bonds with Bull's moll, "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent). In a key scene, a rival gangster makes a move on Feathers during a party and Bull kills him; the party is decorated with thousands of hanging streamers, sectioning off the violence within their festive strands. It's certainly one of Sternberg's best early moments. In the climax, Bull goes to prison and awaits the death penalty, while Rolls Royce tries to decide between rescuing his boss or staying with Feathers.

Emil Jannings stars in The Last Command, which could be argued as an early attempt at a "meta" movie. He is introduced as Sergius Alexander, an aged film extra in Hollywood with a nervous twitch in his neck. A film director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell) casts him and fits him with a general's uniform. In flashback, we learn that Sergius was once a Grand Duke in Russia during the revolution. Two actors, Leo and the beautiful Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) are brought to him as potentially dangerous revolutionaries. He discards Leo and decides to keep Natalie as a prize. She eventually falls for him and helps to save him when he is captured by the Bolsheviks. In the present again, Leo's casting Sergius now seems to be an act of revenge, though things don't quite go as expected. Jannings was a huge star, highly esteemed and considered to be one of the greatest actors of his time; he won a Best Actor Oscar the same year as Hecht (and would work with Sternberg again on The Blue Angel). Most of the film seems played to his strengths, leaving little room for Sternberg to play with mise-en-scene. But it's still a cleverly-constructed movie, brilliantly told, with the final sequence, and a scene of coal-shoveling on a train, providing moments of moving visual poetry.

The masterpiece The Docks of New York is proof that director Josef von Sternberg could find inspiration even without Marlene Dietrich. It's set among the dingiest, grungiest places imaginable, and Sternberg allows rundown, tattered, filthy objects to share the frame with his equally rundown, tattered, filthy characters. These objects fill the corners of the frame, and sometimes the foreground, as if we viewers were planted at some corner table in some waterfront dive, peering through some netting or around a post to see the action. (The camera sometimes tracks along with the characters, and sometimes dissolves rather than cuts, all in an attempt to create a more organic, spontaneous flow.) As a result, the movie is totally grounded, and finds its art and beauty there, rather than from some other, loftier place.

A steamship stoker, Bill Roberts (Bancroft), gets off work for some shore leave. But first we see him at work, covered in coal grime and/or grease, using a filthy rag to wipe the sweat and gunk from his skin, and lighting up a cigarette. On land, he rescues a pretty girl, Mae (gorgeous Betty Compson) from a suicide attempt and becomes fascinated with her, even stealing some new clothes for her (he was going to buy them, but the shop was closed). They go out for a night on the town, i.e. the usual dive hangout, and after some drinking they decide on a hasty marriage. A character named "Hymn Book Harry" (Gustav von Seyffertitz) marries them with a scowl, perhaps convinced that they're heading for trouble, but unable to stop them. In the cold light of morning, things look a bit different, and the characters must make some hard decisions. In other hands, this could have been a pretty ordinary dimestore romance, but Sternberg gives it depth and, as a result, greatness.

Criterion's transfers are impressively beautiful. Each film comes with two different scores; Robert Israel composed one for each film, the Alloy Orchestra (my favorite) provided music for the first two films, and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton scored The Docks of New York. We also get two video essays from 2010, one by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom, and the other by film scholar Tag Gallagher, and a Swedish television interview from 1968 with director Josef von Sternberg. The liner notes booklet includes essays by critic Geoffrey O'Brien, scholar Anton Kaes, and author and critic Luc Sante; notes on the scores by the composers; Ben Hecht's original treatment for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg's 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry.

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