Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Underworld / Last Command / Docks of New York) (The Criterion Collection)
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Underworld (1927), Sternberg's first great popular success, is often credited with initiating the craze for gangster pictures. There's some truth in that; the genre had been around for years, but Underworld elevated it in class and laid crucial groundwork for such early-talkie milestones as Little Caesar and, most strikingly, Scarface. Ex-Chicago crime reporter Ben Hecht, who won the first Academy Award given for original story, chipped in a lot of street-smart color but snickered at what Sternberg did with it. That's understandable. Sternberg really isn't interested in gangsters. He just appreciates the opportunity presented by a gangland ball he can strew with grotesque revelers, and so choke with streamers and confetti that crossing the room becomes a slog. Or the dramatic and poetic possibilities of muting and intensifying violence in the same stroke, by having a hoodlum draw and then doubly conceal his revolver behind a cloud of cigarette smoke and a kerchief. Or not showing a gun at all, but having the force and smoke from its blast set a curtain to flapping. But the most Sternbergian image in the film is the moment a gangster's moll named Feathers appears at the top of the stairs leading to a cellar saloon, and a single filament of her signature costume drifts down through the air. This is observed by a camera movement all its own, by two men who will become rivals for Feathers's heart, by the crowd gathered in the saloon, and by a movie audience awestruck at such visual audacity and delicacy. The romantic triangle of Feathers (Evelyn Brent), her mobster lover "Bull" Weed (George Bancroft), and "Rolls-Royce" (Clive Brook), the lawyer-turned-drunken bum Bull sentimentally rescues, is the real focus of the kind of action Sternberg cares about. The evolution of their characters and their relationships is conveyed with a subtlety light-years away from conventional silent-movie acting. This film was such a hit that the New York exhibitor went to a round-the-clock schedule to accommodate the crowds, and its three leading players all became major stars.
Instead of an urban battleground for mobsters, The Last Command (1928) takes place in two exotic realms: Russia on the brink of the 1917 revolution and 1928 Hollywood. In the latter, a movie director (William Powell) is preparing to shoot an epic set in the former. Linking the two eras is a down-on-his-luck Hollywood extra (Emil Jannings) assigned to play a Russian general--which, unbeknownst to anyone else, he once was. After establishing this framework the movie shifts into the Russian past, where the general--who's also a grand duke--must interrupt his waging of an increasingly pointless Great War to deal with a captured pair of revolutionaries. One is an actress (Evelyn Brent), with whom the general falls in love. The other is, hmmm, the man (William Powell) who 11 years later will be that Hollywood director. Sternberg mounts a fine frenzy in the pre-revolutionary Russian scenes and sets up ironic contrasts between the film's two worlds--say, a martial parade with the general at the height of his power, visually echoed in the cattle-call procession of Hollywood extras hoping for a day's work. Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award for best actor, and he would top this work the following year in Sternberg's German-made The Blue Angel; but it's Powell and the wonderfully low-key performance of Brent that signal where Sternberg's direction of actors was headed.
Sternberg's other 1928 film, The Docks of New York, stands with Murnau's Sunrise and Borzage's Street Angel as the peak of visual artistry and expressiveness in late-silent-era Hollywood. Story, narrative, linear cause-and-effect logic is never a major factor in Sternbergian filmmaking, and Docks affords the most definitive, and triumphant, demonstration of this. It all transpires in a day, most of which feels like night and in any event is contained within a seedy waterfront bar. George Bancroft (the mobster-hero of Underworld) plays a ship's stoker who, during a rare release from the smoky underworld in which he works and lives, becomes involved with two women--a would-be suicide (Betty Compson) and a hardened B-girl (Olga Baclanova). The abortive act of suicide is visually portrayed in shimmering reflection on the harbor's surface, and a later act of murder will involve an uncanny, nearly vertical shot in which the earth under people's feet seems to be water. This is a film you don't remember so much as find yourself haunted by.
DVD extras add useful historical and interpretive context for appreciating the three movies. UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom and indefatigable connoisseur of directorial artistry Tag Gallagher supply pointed visual essays--Bergstrom being especially good on tracing Sternberg's origins, Gallagher zeroing in on Sternberg's stylistic selections and his "transformative direction of Evelyn Brent" just a year or so before his epic seven-film collaboration with Marlene Dietrich set in. Sternberg himself is heard from in a 40-minute documentary-interview done for Swedish television in 1968, a year before the director died; his voice and delivery are most distinctive. Somewhere in the course of these extras a Sternberg credo is quoted: "Art is the compression of infinite spiritual power into a confined space." Yes, that says it. And he did it. --Richard T. Jameson
Six scores: one by Robert Israel for each film; two by the Alloy Orchestra
Two new visual essays; one by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton
1968 Swedish television interview with director Josef von Sternberg
A ninety-six-page booklet featuring essays
Top Customer Reviews
The Last Command is a rare chance to see Emil Jannings and is a compelling tale involving the Russian Revolution, winning Jannings the first Academy Award for Best Actor. Docks of New York is an early precode starring Betty Compson, a truly overworked actress during the early talking film period, in a rare surviving silent work of hers. Finally there is Underworld. If you've only seen Clive Brooks play rather stuffy aristocratic parts I think you'll find this a revelation. Here he plays Rolls Royce, a bum turned respectable by a gangster who then goes into competition with the gangster for his girl, played by Evelyn Brent. All three have great photography and - as first class late silent films - make me quite sad that the silent film era had to end. The following is the scoop on the extra features:
Six scores: one by Robert Israel for each film; two by the Alloy Orchestra, for Underworld and The Last Command; and a piano and voice piece by Donald Sosin for The Docks of New York
Two new visual essays: one by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom and the other by film scholar Tag Gallagher
1968 Swedish television interview with director Josef von Sternberg, covering his entire career
PLUS: A ninety-six-page booklet featuring essays by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien, film scholar Anton Kaes, and author Luc Sante; the original film treatment for Underworld by Ben Hecht; and an excerpt from Sternberg's autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, on Emil Jannings
Josef von Sternberg was unquestionably a unique genius among film directors, and as such is frequently misunderstood by those who are accustomed to a more conventional approach to how movies are made. In terms of visual style and sustained atmosphere he virtually has no equal, even though others have tried to imitate him and have borrowed many of his ideas in their own films. For example in UNDERWORLD, one can see foregleams of plot devices that figured prominently in the gangster genre that emerged during the 30's, particularly in the films from Warner Bros. Von Sternberg already laid the groundwork. In DOCKS OF NEW YORK there is the romantic relationship between George Bancroft and Betty Compson, but von Sternberg achieves it with little, if any, passionate embracing or kissing between the couple. This is typical von Sternberg and is part of what makes his screen romances different from other directors. His protagonists share a psychological bond more than a physical one, and yet one senses a potent eroticism that seems to permeate all of his films. In THE LAST COMMAND we have a wonderful example of life imitating art imitating life within the background of a motion picture studio as a former Russian general, played by Emil Jannings, is demoted to an extra recreating his past glories in a Hollywood production.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Great, classic, earliest of gangster movies, just nicely done. Gotta love the black and white.Published 1 month ago by Brock
I was not familiar with these when I bought them, movie buff that I am. One of the best box-sets that I've come across. Read morePublished on June 7, 2014 by Herbert M. Metzler
I had only known of Josef von Sternberg's work with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930's. It wasn't until I read a review of one of his silent films "Underworld" that I was... Read morePublished on February 18, 2014 by D. Y. Scialla
This set includes the following films: THE DAMNED OCEAN (The Docks of New York), with George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent, THE LAST COMMAND (Twilight of Glory, 1928, with Emil... Read morePublished on December 18, 2013 by D. André
I LOVE silent films. I love the era: the melodrama, the mannerisms, trends, and fashion of the era (I sure wish people could jump in a time machine and erase the things we and our... Read morePublished on December 5, 2013 by mkupl79
Great early gangster movie. I loved observing the clothes, the settings and vehicles, etc... Classic good-hearted gangster plot line also.Published on October 28, 2013 by EGat...
Overrated silent films by Josef Von Sternberg are just standard-fare 1920's studio junk. I was looking forward to some artistic German expressionism, or at least a complex script,... Read morePublished on June 27, 2013 by Bartok Kinski
First let me say I am not a very patient person with respect to entertainment. It takes a well-polished presentation to maintain my interest due, I suppose, to years of watching... Read morePublished on August 8, 2011 by Craig Jackson
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