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DVDs. Josef von Sternberg and the Rest

"Criterion's new box set of three silent films by Josef von SternbergUnderworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928) — is self-evidently one of the most important releases of the year," blogs Dave Kehr at his site (setting off, as always, a smart discussion), and hopefully you'll have already taken in Daniel Kasman's essay in text and images on "this most perverse and beautiful of Hollywood directors."

"In a sense," writes Kehr in the New York Times, "Sternberg was an avant-garde filmmaker who found himself, by fluke and only for a short while, at the controls of the Hollywood machine, then operating at the peak of its otherworldly artificiality. Between his arrival at Paramount in 1927 and his departure in 1935, he directed 14 feature films, two of them now lost, that constitute a body of work without parallel in the studio system.... His films' unreal settings, languorous rhythms and perverse eroticism were not designed to engage and arouse an audience, but rather to reflect the private concerns of their creator. For once, the Dream Factory seemed to be producing actual dreams."

"Von Sternberg opened his breakthrough Underworld, often cited as the template for the succeeding dozen years of urban gangster films, with a bang," writes Bill Weber in Slant. "Burly felon Bull Weed (a larger-than-life George Bancroft) dynamites a bank and single-handedly flees with the loot, before the admiring eyes of a drunken ex-lawyer (Clive Brook) whom the thug adopts as an advisor and mascot, christening him 'Rolls Royce.' Playing out a triangle of loyalty and love with Bull's aptly named moll Feathers, sassily embodied by a plumage-and-fringe-swathed Evelyn Brent, the protagonists are drawn with a mix of verve and melancholy, but the director is the dominant personality, with his fluid cutting among a raucous basement bar, cold-water flats, and gun battles, matched by the florid frame-filling of an adroit entertainer.... If Underworld falls a little short in its third act because it was surpassed by its descendants (both the Bull-under-siege climax and a neon sign flashing 'THE CITY IS YOURS' anticipate scenarist Ben Hecht's script five years later for Scarface), it retains a flavor all its own; it's entirely of von Sternberg's aestheticized world, not Capone's Chicago." Update: Geoffrey O'Brien on Underworld for Criterion.

"One of the rewards of The Last Command is getting to see [Emil] Jannings not just as victim (masochism at its meatiest) but also as master," writes Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe. "A czarist duke reduced to penury in Hollywood, he's cast as a general in a movie being made by a visiting Soviet director (William Powell, impeccable as always). Most of The Last Command consists of a very extended flashback to Russia during World War I. Brent, as a revolutionary assigned to seduce Jannings, falls for him. The whole thing is quite over the top, awash in preposterous coincidences and preposterously glamorous trappings, but so beautiful in its over-the-topness. In other words, it's very von Sternberg. You can feel the presence of Soviet cinema hanging over it — and see von Sternberg rise to the challenge. The movie has so many superb tracking shots you keep expecting to see an intertitle: 'So now what do you think of your mania for montage, Comrade Eisenstein?'" Update: Anton Kaes for Criterion.

Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times on The Docks of New York: "Underworld star George Bancroft plays a steamboat stoker on shore leave in New York who rescues a suicidal damsel (Betty Compson) from the East River. The long, eventful night that follows includes carousing and brawling, a tentative seduction and an impulsive marriage. Von Sternberg's depiction of a working-class world is luminous and poetic but never condescending or sentimental. For a movie that's more than 80 years old, it feels almost impossibly fresh, filled with small gestures and images — a spontaneous kiss between two women, a threaded needle seen through the weepy heroine's eyes — that are as sublime and alive as movie moments get." Update: Luc Sante for Criterion.

Everyone mentions that the package is — no surprise — loaded with extras: a choice of two orchestral scores for each film, two documentaries on von Sternberg, a 1968 interview with him for Swedish television and a 97-page booklet that includes Ben Hecht's original story for Underworld and an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry.

More from Richard Brody (New Yorker), Matt Hough (Home Theater Forum), Nicolas Rapold (Artforum), Jamie S Rich (DVD Talk), Scott Tobias (AV Club) and Gary W Tooze (DVD Beaver). Reminders: Not Coming to a Theater Near You's series von Sternberg & Dietrich is still rolling along beautifully — and another link to Guy Maddin's piece on "that dumpy, dapper rapscallion."

 

OTHER RELEASES


"Last month the folks at Flicker Alley released a restoration of the 1927 film Chicago," notes Kristin Thompson, following her sharp assessment of all three of the von Sternberg silents. "Given that Underworld and this film were both made in 1927 and set in Chicago, it would be interesting to show them on a double feature. They would probably surprise those people who still consider silent films crude and jerky. Von Sternberg's film shows how brilliantly and beautifully a story could be told just before sound came in. Chicago, though no masterpiece, would show how good even an ordinary film could be."

Blue Underground's releasing Machine Gun McCain and Sean Axmaker notes that the "production from director Giuliano Montaldo (who previously made the very entertaining caper Grand Slam and went on to direct the 1971 Sacco & Vanzetti) wasn't necessarily a thoroughly conventional production before Cassavetes came along but his distinctive presence gives the film an entirely unexpected rhythm and personality."

Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel discuss Cemetery Junction and the career of Ricky Gervais.

DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker, Noel Murray (LAT), Bryce J Renninger (indieWIRE) and Stephen Saito (IFC).

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