Friday, November 15, 2019
Nate hood on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set of 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Though maybe not the most popular or well known of the three films, Underworld has a legitimate claim to being the most influential, as it’s credited with codifying and popularizing many of the visual tropes and themes we now associate with gangster cinema. Adapted from a story by legendary Hollywood scribe Ben Hecht—whose Oscar-winning story treatment is included in the essay booklet—Sternberg nixed the screenplay’s original hard-boiled grittiness in favor of a more lyrical romanticism underscored by an honor-bound machismo that’d been prevalent even in the earliest proto-gangster films like D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). The film tells the story of a love triangle between gangster kingpin “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft), his girlfriend “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent), and his best friend “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook), a lawyer-turned-alcoholic he pulled out of the gutter and helped reform. The actual romance storyline feels rushed and almost secondary to the film’s central themes of brotherhood and loyalty, both of which are tested in the third act when Rolls is forced to choose between running off with Feathers or risking his life to rescue Bull from a gun battle with the police after escaping from prison. The film is a marvel to look at, juxtaposing an almost Lubitschian obsession with mannered, manicured surfaces—these gangsters live in smartly furnished city apartments, patron lavish jewelry shops, and attend ticket tape balls where they wear suits, dance, and vote for beauty contests—and a chilling eye for expressionist shadows and darkness. Nowhere are these two tendencies better blended than in a late scene where an on-the-lam Bull feeds a helpless kitten a few drops of milk from his finger while in hiding. It’s a moment that’d make Jean Renoir green with envy. Also of note is the aforementioned gun battle which manages to excite even by today’s standards thanks to its excellent use of montage.
The boxset’s second film, The Last Command, isn’t just the best film of the trilogy in this humble writer’s opinion, it’s also one of the last true masterpieces of the silent cinema medium before it was usurped by sound. (It was released in January 1928, just a few months prior to Bryan Foy’s Lights of New York, the first all-talking full-length film.) It’s also overshadowed somewhat by its reputation as the only surviving American film starring Emil Jannings, one of the greatest performers of the silent era who nevertheless became persona non grata following World War Two thanks to his enthusiastic involvement in the Nazi cinema industry. If it helps, modern audiences can be assured that at the very least the Jannings seen here hadn’t yet become one of Hitler’s faithful. In any case, his performance here equals any he ever gave, even his career-defining turns in F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Sternberg’s later The Blue Angel (1930). Here he plays Sergius Alexander, cousin of the executed Russian Czar and former commander of his armies. After failing to stop the revolutionaries, Sergius fled to America where—in a post-modern twist—he gets a job in Hollywood playing himself in a role directed by Leo Andreyev (William Powell), the very Bolshevik who overthrew him.
The film’s crown jewel is the lengthy middle section comprised of a flashback to the revolution where Sternberg’s trademark expressionism transformed the revolt into a nightmare complete with ghoulish crowd scenes, shocking carnage, and Sergius’s acutely sadistic public humiliation. It’s here where the film’s central themes of pageantry and performance fully coalesce. Indeed, it’s not the tenacity of the revolutionaries that ultimately wins the day, it’s the Czar’s foolish insistence on staging an unnecessary offensive for his viewing pleasure that gives the Bolsheviks the opportunity to turn the tide of the war. By playing at war instead of actually fighting one, the Czar doomed himself, Sergius, and Russia. This thematic preoccupation with performance comes full circle at the end where Sergius has a mental breakdown, hallucinates he’s reliving an imaginary final battle, and dies while onset Andreyev’s film. Only the film’s Hollywood-mandated conservatism in depicting the Bolsheviks as rabid monsters and the Royalists as righteous, benevolent depots tempers its greatness as it results in a politically confused climax where Andreyev the Bolshevik eulogizes Sergius the Czarist as a “great man” who “truly loves Russia” despite being surely responsible for countless untold pogroms and purges.
The final film, The Docks of New York, is the most famous of the three and the most blatant triumph of form over function, of style over substance. The film is a love story whose machinations are as ham-fisted and blunt as those in Underworld: a brusque tramp steamer sailor named Bill (played by a returning George Bancroft) falls in love with a suicidal prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson) after saving her from drowning. The two commiserate on their equally desperate and destitute lives, their extensive sexual pasts, and their loneliness before deciding to get married the same night they meet at the saloon near where Bill’s ship is anchored. In the meantime Mae fights off the advances of Bill’s tyrannical superior Andy (Mitchell Lewis), finally shooting him in an act of self-defense. From here the film deteriorates via forced melodrama—one of Mae’s fellow prostitutes takes the blame for the killing (and gets promptly forgotten by the film), Bill ships out only to change his mind at the last minute and return, and Mae swears to wait for him to complete a 60-day jail sentence for an unrelated crime. In any case, the film provides some of the most alluring and hypnotic surfaces of Sternberg’s entire oeuvre, whether it be solemn figures scuttling through pea soup fog or a solemn wedding taking place in the middle of a drunken Dionysian revel. The story may be weak, but the images—oh, the images—are as powerful and unforgettable as ever.