Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 529: Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg’s silent crime movie is generally considered to be the one that laid in place a lot of the tropes that would persist (and continue to do so) in gangster films over the years. We have the gregarious mobster “Bull Weed” (George Bancroft) who shows pity on the alcoholic “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), helping him to clean up and work again as a lawyer, in which role he’s able to help Bull while also getting close to Bull’s girl “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), a classic three-way love story that motivates the divided loyalties of the film’s climactic shoot-out with police (because there’s always got to be a shoot-out). Despite being pre-Code, there are still strong moral lessons that bad guys need to learn, but the film keeps what now comes across as pretty hackneyed content relatively fresh. The camera doesn’t move too much, but somehow the film gives the impression of a whirl of action and movement, with pools of murky darkness befitting the setting. In short, it still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee; Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 21 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 528: “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg”

This box set presents three films by Josef von Sternberg, the last three of his surviving silent films. And while they’re not thematically related, they do present a fine example of the evolution of his florid filmic style towards the end of this period, as he went into a run of films starring Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg was an emigré director who came to the States at a young age from Vienna, so it’s fair to say he had a good feeling for Europe, and demonstrates it in the second film here, The Last Command (1928), which deals with a Russian general (and a revolutionary, played by a young William Powell) who has also come to Hollywood — not that this could be construed as in any way autobiographical of course! The first of the three is Underworld (1927), which in some ways sets up a lot of the generic template of the gangster movie. The other is The Docks of New York (1928), perhaps his greatest silent achievement, a film that is lit and shot with an atmospheric eye for its dockside setting, and presents a love story of sorts, although there are plenty of lowlifes and ne’er-do-wells to get in the way of our antihero George Bancroft. All three films are essential artefacts of late Hollywood silent cinema, and go nicely together with the box set of his work with Dietrich.

Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II Екатери́на Алексе́евна); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001).