3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Underworld/The Last Command/The Docks of New York
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 81/88/75 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
Subtitles: English intertitles
MSRP: $ 79.95
Release Date: August 24, 2010
Review Date: August 7, 2010
After bouncing around movie studios on both coasts trying to soak up all he could through watching the daily routine of others making movies, Austrian expatriate Jonas Sternberg eventually began writing, editing, and assisting with the direction on other people’s movies. After completing some films at studios such as United Artists and MGM (which were sometimes released and sometimes not), the now newly christened Josef von Sternberg landed at Paramount where he would inevitably make his greatest triumphs. His mastery of photographing arresting images that complemented the sometimes melodramatic stories beloved by audiences of the day earned him a reputation as a genius behind the camera, and these three silent classics, his first under his Paramount contract and all completed a couple of years before he’d make cinema history introducing the world to Marlene Dietrich and mentoring her through her first five years of Hollywood stardom, constitute the contents of this latest Criterion multi-film release. These films, two of which won Oscars during the first year of the Academy’s existence, are rare gems in the history of silent cinema, and it’s with great anticipation that they’re now presented to fans of the director.
Underworld – 4/5
Gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is caught in the act of his latest heist by a drunken bum he dubs “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook). He takes Rolls in, cleans him up and sobers him up after realizing that the man, once a lawyer, has a terrific head on his shoulders and can be an asset to his crime organization. Bull’s main rival in the criminal business is the bullying Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) who takes an instant dislike to Rolls. However, with Rolls’ ingenuity, Bull manages to rid himself of Buck’s competition for carrying off the biggest scores. Bull’s only other problem is his girl “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Behind Bull’s back she falls madly in love with Rolls, but the two know how much each owes Bull and refuse to give in to their passion for one another. However, after Bull gets arrested and sentenced to be hanged, word gets back to him that Feathers is two-timing him with Rolls, and he vows to make them both pay once he can spring himself from prison.
Von Sternberg changed much about Ben Hecht’s original story in bringing it to the screen (the screenplay is credited to Robert Lee with the adaptation by Charles Furthmann, but Hecht won the Oscar for Best Original Story), and while this very first big gangster picture is notable for its introduction of the subject matter to movies, it sinks just a bit into uncharacteristic sentimentality in the last reel robbing the movie of some of its gritty toughness (but it certainly helped make it a huge hit). Von Sternberg’s fondness for expressionistic lighting gets ample play here, and he stages a ball with customary speed and loads of detail. There’s also a startling montage of full face close-ups that causes one to catch his breath, clearly a von Sternberg innovation. Clive Brook underplays to perfection and emerges as the film’s most appealing character. Of the two head hoods, Fred Kohler’s Buck is a tad more charismatic than Bancroft’s Bull, but they’re both prone to overemphatic histrionics. Evelyn Brent looks pretty but effects a simpering coyness that doesn’t play well eighty-three years later.
The Last Command – 5/5
It’s Hollywood, 1928, and a dominating film director (William Powell) chooses from a set of head shots an extra applying for work claiming that he was once a Russian general. As the wizened old man with a prominent head tremor puts on his make-up, he remembers the Russia of 1917 on the eve of the revolution when he was Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), general of all the imperial armies and second in power only to the czar. Among the rebels he interviews are the director we saw in the modern section as well as his girl friend Natalie (Evelyn Brent) whose duty is to kill the grand duke to get the revolution underway. However, she finds herself falling in love with him so that when the downfall of the royal family begins, she must pretend to hate him in order to help save his life. The Bolshevik takeover is bloody and sadistic with plenty of humiliation heaped upon the grand duke’s head, but Natalie is convinced she can inevitably save him if only she can direct attention away from Sergius.
Von Sternberg’s masterpiece offers a compelling scenario that constantly holds one’s attention in both time periods (the Hollywood bookends are brilliantly conceived and executed, especially the eye-raising daily cattle call of extras and the bravura ending), but the film rests on the captivating versatility of Emil Jannings. Clearly and distinctly delineating a man both strong and authoritative at one moment of his life and broken and pathetically tottering on the brink of insanity a mere eleven years later, Jannings won the first Academy Award for Best Actor, and there’s no denying his astonishing performance was fully deserving of the honor. Evelyn Brent gives a much more interesting mercurial performance here than in Underworld, and William Powell acquits himself well, too, in an early role (though his aging make-up in the Hollywood sequences isn’t especially well done). But von Sternberg’s painterly use of lighting, people placement, and sets both small and grand are all terrific, and he stages a brilliant sequence where he shows a parade of troops lining up for the czar in counterpoint to the remaining troops fighting for their lives on the front struggling to stay alive after the necessary forces were removed for the show of pomp for the country’s leader. His ability to handle both intimate scenes and full scale action sequences made him one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, and for good reason.
The Docks of New York – 4/5
Ship’s stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) gets into port after a long time at sea and can’t wait to start his shore leave at the local dive The Sandbar. On his way, however, he sees a young girl (Betty Compson) trying to commit suicide by drowning, so he dives into the harbor and saves her. After she dries off, they have a chance to talk and during the course of the evening, despite his engineer’s (Mitchell Lewis) best efforts to take the girl from Bill despite his already having a wife (Baclanova) standing there watching his every move, the new couple decides on an impromptu marriage. Though they have no marriage license, the pastor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) agrees to perform the ceremony with their promise they’ll get a license the following morning. When morning comes, however, Bill is ready to return to sea and chalk up the evening’s events as just another atypical shore leave.
Though Jules Furthman’s script isn’t especially interesting or original, von Sternberg infuses it with plenty of cinematic pizzazz. The evocative, expressionistic photography as Bill carries the unconscious Mae down the dock to seek help is hauntingly beautiful with its deep, deep shadows and still, foggy ambiance, and he stages the quick-time wedding adroitly with not a second wasted. Unlike his florid performance in Underworld, George Bancroft gives a modulated, sensitive yet husky and dynamic performance here with no outrageous flourishes that date the performance absurdly. Betty Compson, too, generates both pathos and empathy with her world-weary street girl tired of living an aimless existence. There’s plenty of comedy from Clyde Cook as Bill’s stoker pal, and Mitchell Lewis doesn’t overdo the fierce aggressiveness as the jealous engineer who wants Mae for himself. Baclanova, who was a rather miserable actress once sound came in, is perfect for the silent screen enacting the disappointed, castaway wife with a surly surety that is both tough and touching.
Underworld - 3/5
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced, and the image is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style with Academy ratio pictures on DVD. The image’s cleanness and stability is pretty remarkable for a film its age, but it certainly isn’t perfect. There are scratches here and there (some of longer duration than others), and there’s some minor spotting and some missing frames on occasion. More jarring is the inconsistency with the focus with much of the film achieving a fine degree of sharpness but occasional shots so soft than one fears the cameraman was asleep on the job. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The Last Command – 3.5/5
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced, and the image is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style. Sharpness is a bit better defined in this transfer than in the previous one though black levels are really no better than average, and there are scratches and some minor print damage on display. The movie has been divided into 15 chapters.
The Docks of New York – 3.5/5
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced, and the image is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style. Though there are numerous scratches both singly and in bunches from time to time, the overall picture quality here is the best of the three films in the set. Grayscale is the most appealing with vivid blacks and pure whites, and apart from a couple of soft close-ups, the picture is quite effective and detailed. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
All films– 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo music tracks which I chose for each movie have been composed by Robert Israel. They’re fine complements to the on-screen action, and the recordings have very good fidelity throughout. The alternate music score offerings for Underworld and The Last Command are by the Alloy Orchestra. The Docks of New York has an alternate score by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton.
Each film disc offers a choice of two orchestral scores as accompaniment for each movie. They are selectable from the main menu. There are also brief descriptions of the scores selectable from the main menu.
“Underworld: How It Came to Be” is film critic Janet Bergstrom’s video introduction to the oeuvre of Josef von Sternberg with an excellent summary of his early career and some facts about the making of the film that puts the classic movie into perspective. It runs for 36 ¼ minutes.
“Von Sternberg Till ‘29” is a video essay by critic Tag Gallagher detailing von Sternberg’s early career and then delving into each of the three films in the set in a grab bag style of stream of consciousness thoughts punctuated with images from the movies. It runs 35 ¼ minutes.
An interview with Josef von Sternberg conducted on Swedish television in 1968 finds the filmmaker reminiscing about his silent films and his work with Marlene Dietrich. There is also an extended sequence from the unfinished I, Claudius which looks beautiful. The black and white program in 4:3 runs 39 ¾ minutes.
The enclosed 97-page booklet is rich with stills from the various films plus cast and crew lists for each movie, and articles on each film by literary editor Geoffrey O’Brien (Underworld), film professor Anton Kaes (The Last Command), and author Luc Sante (The Docks of New York). Notes on the original scores composed by Robert Israel, Ken Winokur, Donald Sosin, and Joanna Seaton are also present. Contained in the booklet is Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld, fascinating to see what was retained for the film and how much new material was created by others, and a lengthy excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography detailing his work with the tempestuous Emil Jannings.
4/5 (not an average)
One of cinema’s most notoriously iconoclastic directors has three of his best and most well-known silent films brought to DVD in a fascinating Criterion package worthy of the man’s great gifts. 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg should be on the top of every classic cinema fan’s must-see list. Highly recommended!