Early Josef von Sternberg (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Underworld

Underworld

3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
A three-DVD box set, including Underworld (B&W, 81 min., 1927), The Last Command (B&W, 88 min., 1928), The Docks of New York (B&W, 75 min., 1928). A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.

Josef von Sternberg rarely took a writing credit on his films, but an amusing way to assess his unique artistry is to compare his 1927 masterpiece Underworld with “Underworld: An Original Story of Chicago,” the Ben Hecht yarn that inspired it. Both versions revolve around gangster Bull Weed, who breaks out of prison just before he’s due to be hanged. Here he is in Hecht’s version, holed up in a rented room and realizing that his mug is staring out from every newspaper in the city:

Terror and impotence filled the Killer. The world was armed with his picture. His picture hung before the eyes of millions. There was no hiding. Anyone who spied him for an instant—there was no hiding from these photographs turned on him now like a thousand searchlights.

Carried away by the horrible resemblance he bore these pictures Bull Weed sprang to his feet and, seizing the mirror, smashed it into fragments. And for the moment he felt as if he had obliterated himself.

When he sat down again at his table he saw his reflection in the tiny windowpane, in the piece of tin behind the bed.

His lips tightened…

Now read the opening intertitle of the film: “A great city in the dead of night…streets lonely, moon-flooded…buildings empty as the cliff-dwellings of a forgotten age.” Von Sternberg’s transformation of boiler-plate pulp fiction into stylish cinematic art begins with those evocative words, continues through a host of finely tuned changes—a Hecht character called the Weasel becomes a von Sternberg character called Rolls Royce, for instance—and persists until the final scene, which replaces Hecht’s lurid dynamite blast (“They took Bull Weed to the undertakers—what was left of him”) with a moment of bittersweet redemption.

As critic Geoffrey O’Brien points out in a program essay for The Criterion Collection’s new box set, 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, the director was almost dismissive of Underworld in his 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, calling it an “experiment in photographic violence and montage” laced with “many an incident to placate the public, not ignoring the moss-covered themes of love and sacrifice.” Mossy or not, Underworld became an unexpected blockbuster, running literally around the clock in New York, and helping to define the gangster-film genre by interweaving the criminal exploits of Bull (George Bancroft) with his friendship for the reformed drunk Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), his possessive love of a beautiful woman called Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and the domineering jealousy that gives way to forgiveness in the end.

Underworld seems thrillingly modern even today, as do the other two features—The Last Command and The Docks of New York, both released in 1928—in this excellent three-DVD set, which presents them in first-rate transfers accompanied by two different music scores apiece. Among numerous other extras, the package includes a reprint of the “Underworld” story and a video essay on the Underworld film by scholar Janet Bergstrom, who notes that Hecht so loathed the alleged sentimentality of von Sternberg’s ending (one of many alternatives seriously considered by the director) that he tried to have his name removed from the picture. This was a brave gesture for a young writer with no other movie credits to his name, but his request was ignored, and one surmises he forgave the slight when Underworld won him an Oscar for best original story at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927.

Hecht went on to become a legendary screenwriter, of course, and fun though it is to scoff at this particular story, it contains a minor ingredient that subtly contributes to the film’s sophisticated modernism. As a well-read intellectual and insatiable collector of modern art, von Sternberg surely appreciated the fact that Bull’s bête noire in the story is one Buck Mulligan (played by Fred Kohler in the film), named after a secondary character in James Joyce’s epochal Ulysses, which had been published in book form just five years before Underworld reached the screen. I don’t take this as a secret clue to hidden meanings in the film, much less the story it’s based on, but it points in intriguing directions—suggesting, for instance, that the film’s boisterous underworld ball (not present in Hecht’s yarn) is an oblique equivalent of Joyce’s bravura Nighttown sequence, and underscoring the fascination with processes of consciousness shared by Joyce and von Sternberg, who described his debut film, a 1925 succès d’estime called The Salvation Hunters, as an attempt at photographing thought. The wish to accomplish that rare feat steadily enriches the exquisite play with light, shadow, and décor for which von Sternberg’s films are famous, Underworld emphatically included.

The Last Command was the first of two films von Sternberg made with Emil Jannings, who had built his reputation with German pictures such as Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry (1919) and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) before coming to Hollywood, earning the first-ever Academy Award for best actor with The Last Command in 1929, and returning to Germany with von Sternberg for The Blue Angel (1930), the director’s second talkie and first picture with Marlene Dietrich, who rode it to international superstardom. The Last Command stars Jannings as a former Russian general and nobleman named Dolgorucki, now eking out his living as a tenth-rate Hollywood extra with a nervous twitch brought on by some “terrible shock” he suffered earlier in life. His mug shot comes to the attention of a powerful director named Lev Andreyev (William Powell) who’s assembling the cast for a movie about Russia, and the old thespian lands a part. As he gets ready to play his scene, a long flashback reveals the power he enjoyed in Russia, his infatuation with dazzling Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent again), who is secretly “the most dangerous revolutionist” in the land, and the devastation he suffered when she seemingly betrayed him to his enemies. Along the way we realize that Andreyev was formerly the insurrectionist who brought about the general’s downfall.

In an essay for the Criterion box set, film scholar Anton Kaes makes a case for The Last Command as an exploration of “the magic and mystery—and perils—of double identities inherent in the very nature of film acting.” This is an insightful remark, but for me the movie’s biggest pleasures are more strictly visual, as when Dolgorucki sees Natalie aiming a gun at him in a stunning mirror shot, or when (as critic Tag Gallagher observes in an otherwise weak video essay) von Sternberg mischievously inserts Stalin and Trotsky lookalikes into a meeting of Russian revolutionaries. The final scene is the most powerful of all, with Dolgorucki playing his little part on a Hollywood stage that von Sternberg presents in stylized, almost abstract terms—a movie set of the mind, swarming with phantom revolutionists from the old man’s hallucinating brain. For me The Last Command is the least brilliant of the films in this box set, largely because von Sternberg overstresses Jannings’s suffering-soul shtick almost as heavily as Murnau does in The Last Laugh, and also because the very end (when Andreyev abruptly decides the dying Dolgorucki is “a great man”) seems like the worst kind of tacked-on Hollywood uplift. The film has many beauties, though, and is a key work of von Sternberg’s early career.

By contrast, The Docks of New York strikes me as a nearly perfect work of art. George Bancroft plays Bill Roberts, a shipboard stoker who saves a woman named Mae (the incomparably cute Betty Compson) from drowning in a suicide attempt, falls in love with her, marries her on a drunken whim, and heads back to sea the next morning, leaving only a few dollars and a bitter memory for his bride—until the thought of her tears and the lure of her smile make him waver in his heartlessness and reconsider the prospect of a landlubber’s life. The vividly etched secondary characters include Bill’s hardboiled boss, Andy (Mitchell Lewis), the boss’s equally hardboiled wife, Lou (Olga Baclanova, billed by last name only), and a preacher called Hymn Book Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who reluctantly performs the wedding at the midpoint of the film.

The story is superbly crafted as a whole and in each of its parts; especially arresting are scenes that build to the brink of melodramatic action that then amazes you by nothappening, instead letting the story glide to its next destination with restraint and assurance. And all the while von Sternberg works the visual wonders that were already his trademark, draping the set in fog and fishing nets that are at once utterly mundane and signifiers of a higher, visionary truth that reaches miraculously toward the characters despite the drabness of their lives and the squalidness of their surroundings. Even by the lofty standards of silent cinema’s greatest period, The Docks of New York is a towering work.

Presenting silent movies with multiple scores to choose from is a growing trend among DVD distributors, and it’s a welcome one, allowing for divergent interpretations by different composers and inviting viewers to select favorites for themselves. Criterion plays it safe in the von Sternberg set, generally opting for time-tested approaches. All three films have orchestral scores by Robert Israel composed for this release, blending Israel’s own themes with familiar Twenties tunes and other appropriate materials. There are times when Israel comes close to the dubious tactic known as mickey-mousing, imitating the action of Underworld with percussive stingers when Bull shoves Rolls and shoots Buck, for instance, and spinning a gracefully descending line when one of Feathers’s feathers floats down a staircase; and speaking of Feathers, her moony scenes with Rolls call up a schmaltzy love theme that Hecht would have really hated. But these are minor letdowns in generally first-rate scores that generate excitement and enhance moods just as they should.

Underworld and The Last Command also have modernist scores by the three-member Alloy Orchestra, sounding more symphonic than they sometimes do but playing up a storm on their usual assortment of electronic instruments, conventional instruments, and things that aren’t instruments at all (although they downplay what they call “junk,” perhaps seeking von Sternbergian hauteur on this occasion). These sounds have nothing to do with the Twenties, but they’re irresistible all the same. The one score in the set that bothers me a bit is the one by pianist Donald Sosin and singer Joanna Seaton for The Docks of New York. While it’s good to have an old-fashioned piano accompaniment in the mix, the lyrics of Seaton’s vocals intrude on the delicately balanced texture of the visuals. They’re pleasing in their own right, though, and Sosin’s melodies are fine, if a tad corny at times.

Other supplements include an interview with von Sternberg produced by Swedish television in 1968 and booklet essays by Luc Sante and the composers of the scores. Plus an excerpt from Fun in a Chinese Laundry focusing on von Sternberg’s fraught relationship with Jannings, all from von Sternberg’s perspective, of course. As a director he was as difficult as they come, demanding retakes and fussing over décor until his casts and crews were fuming. But in the Twenties and Thirties, before his career began its irreversible decline, the results of his perfectionism were astonishing. Criterion’s admirable package is a wonderful way to experience them.

To purchase 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, click here

David Sterritt, chair of the National Society of Film Critics, is adjunct professor of film at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.