3 SILENT CLASSICS BY JOSEF VON STERNBERG
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: George Bancroft, Clive
Brook, Evelyn Brent, Emil Jannings, Betty Compson
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 244 Minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2010
"Make believe you died...make believe you're startin' all over again."
Josef von Sternberg made a name for himself as a master visual director...in fact, his meticulous lighting schemes have been influencing filmmakers for decade after decade. He might best be known for his films with Marlene Dietrich in the early sound days, but fans know that some of his best work took place before the advent of talkies.
Criterion knows that as well, which is why they've compiled a most excellent collection and film scholar resource for DVD. 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg turns the clock back to the movies that made his reputation and showcases a unique and trend-bending talent in the prime of his creativity.
Underworld was not his first time directing a feature, but it WAS the film that established him. It also more or less created a tradition of gangster films that arguably has never left the cinema. It tells the story of a notorious criminal named Bull Weed (Bancroft) who takes a drunken ex-lawyer called Rolls Royce (Brook) under his wing.
Bull is brutish and jovial, and brags how he can never be caught. But when a spark of romance develops between Rolls and Bull's gal (Brent), trouble is brewing. Will the two remain loyal to Bull whom, despite being a bad guy, really gave them everything they have? The climax, involving Bull escaping the hangman's noose for one hour in order to go to his grave with one critical piece of knowledge.
My favorite of the set, and the film I most think of when I think of von Sternberg, is The Last Command. Star Emil Jannings won the first ever Best Actor Oscar for his work, and if you never thought a truly incredible and emotionally solid performance could come from the era of silent melodrama, you should know Mr. Jannings gave arguably the two single greatest actor performances of that age with this and The Last Laugh.
Here, he plays a Russian extra in Hollywood about to take the stage for an epic on the revolution. He has a head shake he can't control (“I had a great shock once”), and humbly knows they've pinned his uniform medals on the wrong side. Then in flashback mode, we see that he was once a high commander in the army of the Tsar, charged with seeking out the revolutionaries and destroying them. He was powerful and merciless, but when his heart gets softened by a beautiful young Leninist, he can no longer be what he was.
The revolution, however, is inevitable, and when it comes time for those in power to be powerless, the girl helps him escape a terrible fate at the hands of the mob...but at a price that left him forever broken. Now, with his one-time political enemy the director of his latest film, he will give the performance of a lifetime. Words can't really describe what an emotionally powerful and moving film this is.
But a close match is The Docks of New York, a masterful film that often gets mentioned in the same breath as F. W. Murnau's Sunrise. George Bancroft returns as Bill Roberts, a stoker aboard a steamer ship with one night ashore to raise hell and spend some hard-earned pay. But his plans are diverted after he dives in the water after Mae (Compson) attempts to commit suicide. Feeling somewhat protective, Bill steals her some dry clothes and decides to show her how much fun life could be. The two end up getting married in a bar amongst much drunken revelry.
The next day, Bill has to set sail again...was it all just one night's worth of fun, or has life forever changed for these two lonely people? "I never done a decent thing in my life," Bill laments at one point. The finale will truly bring a tear to the eye...not because of sadness, but because of pure goodness. Of the three, this might be the film that really showcases the true artistic signature of its director.
The von Sternberg style was all about lighting, and he mastered the art like no other and proved how much more beautiful black and white photography can be than color, if a true master is at the controls. Look at the women in his movies...few, if ever, have been more beautifully photographed. They go from lovely lasses to images of luminescence. In fact, one reason there's never been a bad performance in a von Sternberg movie has to be the way he assures his cast comes across on film. George Bancroft never looked so menacing and intimidating in his career as he did in Underworld, and Emil Jannings, already gifted, became both the epitome of a terrible tyrant and a cruelly defeated old man in the space of a single film.
But watch Betty Compson throughout The Docks of New York. Not only is it a great performance, but one of the best filming of a performance ever. This points to von Sternberg's later years where he would create such magic time and time again with Marlene Dietrich. But in the silent era, the director was already showing what he was capable of, and this set proves his mastery even in his younger years.
Silent films are always a bit tricky to judge in this department...you don't expect the flair and cleanness of a modern presentation, but you don't want to judge unfairly harshly, because relatively so few films from the era survived in ANY state. Suffice to say, Criterion is the studio best suited for the task, and these 80-plus year old films do well under their care. Yes, there is the expected and unavoidable signs of aging, but overall, the effort is quite solid...good contrast and definition as well as could be hoped.
Each disc has a choice of a tradition score by Robert Israel or a more modern one, and all are perfectly good listens, but if I had to pick one as the standout, it would be the Alloy Orchestra score for Underworld. Not only is it terrifically suited and dynamic, it times some impact sounds to go along with the visuals to elevate the experience. I also loved the jazzy new score for The Docks of New York. The piano by Donald Sosin is a perfect throwback sound to the 1920s, and the occasional vocals by Joanna Seaton on the original tune “My Lucky Day” works wonderfully with the material.
Underworld and The Last Command come with new visual essays on the respective films...and very well done ones, incorporating spoken text with carefully cultivated film clips to make for a solid learning experience...in both cases, they helped enhance my appreciation for von Sternberg. The Docks of New York includes a 40 minute 1968 Swedish television interview with the man himself, which is an absolute treat.
There is also a generous book (96 pages) of essays, photos, notes from the score composers and more.
I've seen many Josef von Sternberg films through the years, but my favorites are definitely ones from the silent era. This magnificent set from the Criterion collection is proof why...these films show a master in complete command of his craft in creating three of the most memorable and influential films from the earliest days of cinema.