Home Video Reviews
Underworld, Sternberg's third feature (not counting uncredited reshoots and re-edits of other films), has been called the first gangster film, but apart from anticipating some of the conventions taken up in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and especially Scarface, this proto-gangster film is far more of an atmospheric character piece than the rat-a-tat movies that blasted through the throes of the early sound era. Gangland legend Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is no mob boss but a loner who pulls off jobs solo and Rolls Royce Wensel (Clive Brook, later to reappear in Sternberg's Shanghai Express) is a one-time lawyer turned fulltime drunk who witnesses his escape from a bank robbery. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship--Bull's confidence in this drop-out inspires Wensel (who, as he says, may be a bum but is no squealer) to clean up and dry out and Wensel returns the favor by with his unflagging loyalty, to the point that he denies his attraction to Bull's girl, the elegant jazz baby Feathers (Evelyn Brent).
Where later gangster films were largely violent rise and fall tales of a street hood with Tommy gun and a Shakespearean story arc, Sternberg transformed the story by Ben Hecht (a former Chicago newsman who filled it with references to real Chicago crime history) into a nocturnal fantasy of the urban criminal underworld, a tale of loyalty and love in a violent world. Sternberg's direction is both classical and modern, with an expressive approach to storytelling and his distinctive visual style already apparent (as in the streamers filling the screen in a party scene). But it's his direction of actors that defines the film: measured, underplayed, full of long, measured looks and half smiles that communicate trust, loyalty, disdain, suspicion and understanding, with a dynamic contrast between Bancroft and Brook that perfectly captures their character. Bancroft's Bull is a street thug who has become a big shot, guided by a code of behavior but no real social manners, and he plays it big and broad. Brook, by contrast, plays Rolls Royce with restraint and reserve, held in check at all times, his every move deliberate and measured. He bows ever so simply to offer his thanks and his respect and he just barely cracks a smile to signal his affirmation and appreciation. And then there is Evelyn Brent as Feathers, a bumped-around beauty who starts out hard and brassy and softens over the course of her story. Behind her strength and a poise is a carefully constructed show of nonchalant confidence and apathy, a thoroughly modern performance and a portrait of a woman who knows that to show emotion is to show vulnerability.
Aside from a few scenes of densely-layered textures, such as the streamers littering the tables and floors and screen in the gangster party scene, Sternberg strips detail from the imagery in most scenes in Underworld, creating a sleek, austere visual world of empty streets in the night. Not so his subsequent film The Last Command, where he was promoted to a bigger budget and a bona-fide international superstar: Emil Jannings, who had just arrived in Hollywood from his success in such German classics as The Last Laugh and Faust. Jannings channels the humiliated doorman from The Last Laugh to play a frail, broken old Russian émigré reduced to extra work in Hollywood who is hired to play a General in a Russian revolution film, which prompts a flashback to his past life as the proud and arrogant commander of the Czar's armies in 1917.
What opens as a satire of the Hollywood assembly-line process turns into a lavish and lush fantasy of Russian in the revolution, which Sternberg and his art director Hans Drier appear to have created entirely in the studio. Jannings is all aristocratic dignity and privilege as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, his appearance as carefully sculpted as his effortlessly commanding manner, and this theatrical performance earned Jannings the first Academy Award for Best Actor. It also stands in marked contrast to the restraint, the masked glances and still stares of William Powell (as the Hollywood director who was also a revolutionary in old Russia) and Evelyn Brent (as the revolutionary agent who falls in love with Sergius), but it's more than just old school skills versus modern film acting. Sternberg uses the contrast to differentiate the sides of the battle, emphasize the class difference and create a dynamic of old Europe and new. And if the film presents the "revolutionists" in generally dismissive portraits, as either drunken mobs or scheming backroom plotters, Sternberg presents Czarist Russia as a decadent and oppressive regime out of date in the modern world.
The Docks of New York, completed at the dawn of the sound era, is the simplest, most delicately visualized and most perfect film of the set, a turn-of-the-century bowery answer to Sunrise, with a romantic idealism fighting its way out of hard-scrabble lives and resigned characters of the waterfront culture. George Bancroft is Bill, a stoker on a steamship who plans to add to his gallery of female conquests on his single night of shore leave. After he saves despondent street angel Mae (Betty Compson) from drowning, he decides to show her why life is worth living without with a single night of fun that culminates in a marriage the no one, least of all Bill, takes seriously.
This the film where Sternberg really perfected his sculpting of screen space in depth through light, shadow, scrims, smoke and fog, and his simple effects and visual touches (an image smears to a blur when a character starts to tear up, a gunshot is signaled by startled pigeons and two puffs of smoke that drift over the window) are as evocative as they are inventive. His direction of the actors is just as evocative. Bancroft is more measured and restrained than in Underworld but no less direct; his Bill is a man who acts upon his impulses with no reflection or restraint, with a compassion both genuine and short-lived. Betty Compson makes Mae yet another of Sternberg's magnificent women, a bruised romantic who has learned not to give in to her dreams, but continues to dream regardless, and under her rag doll looks is a young woman who has been kicked around, body and soul, for so long that she hasn't much hope left. She's both a resigned pessimist and the biggest optimist in the film. The Docks of New York was a box-office disappointment in its day, lost in the rush to sound in 1928, but today is revealed as a masterpiece of the late silent era, a beautiful and tender film that earns its romantic triumph.
The films look excellent for their age, somewhat scratched and scuffed at the ends of the reels but with strong images and a sharp focus that gives Sternberg's images a sense of depth. The three-disc box set presents each disc in a separate paperboard digipak and each film is offered with two scores. Robert Israel contributes dramatic scores for small combo and small orchestra, very satisfying and the closest to an "authentic" score that the set offers (the original scores no longer exist but Israel consulted cue sheets). for each film.. The Alloy Orchestra offers original compositions for Underworld (both moodier and jauntier than Israel's) and The Last Command, and Donald Sosin presents a score for piano and voice (soprano Joanna Seaton) for The Docks of New York, including an original lyric that serves as Mae's theme.
The set also features two superb original visual essays, a relatively recent form of DVD supplement that combines lecture, documentary and commentary. Janet Bergstrom's 36-minute "Underworld: How It Came to Be" chronicles Sternberg's early career and explores the way he shaped Underworld through production details and film analysis. Tag Gallagher's 35-minute "Von Sternberg till '29" explores his visual style through all three films with perceptive observations and a critical analyses that verges on poetry. Also features an archival 40-minute interview with Josef von Sternberg conducted in 1968 for Swedish television plus a 96-page booklet with essays on each film, Ben Hecht's original story for "Underworld" and an excerpt from Sternberg's autobiography.
For more information about Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg, go to TCM Shopping.
by Sean Axmaker