Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt (1929), his first talkie, is perhaps not so much forgotten as simply hard to see, which means it lives on in the minds of film lovers but in abstracted form, since so few Sternberg fans have managed to get hold of a copy or attend a screening. It's prime Sternberg and deserves to be seen.
On one level a near-remake of Underworld, the so-called "first gangster film", Thunderbolt, like its predecessor (and like altogether lost film The Dragnet) it stars George Bancroft as a tougher-than-nails gangster and bank robber who winds up in jail but plots to avenge himself upon his girlfriend's nice-guy lover. Key differences are that Thunderbolt is written by Jules Furthman and his brother Charles—Jules would go on to script several of the Dietrich movies that cemented Sternberg's immortality—rather than by Ben Hecht, so the wisecracking is more philosophical, peculiar and perverse—and this is Sternberg's first soundie, which certainly makes a difference.
In The Blue Angel, a far more widely viewed film, the approach to sound design is wacky, expressive and low-tech: unable to mix two soundtracks, Sternberg was forced to record everything at once and, when required, splice in additional effects. A silent dressing room. The door opens, and instantly music bursts through from the cabaret. The door closes, and CUT: the music is gone, as if a switch had been flicked or the tape cut. It's something like a cartoon, and seems perfect for the artificial world Sternberg and his actors and designers and cinematographer have painted.
Thunderbolt had the benefit of Hollywood technology, but was made a little earlier, so similarly primitive conditions prevail. Sternberg's approach is slightly different though. He insists on underscoring scenes with source music, so that death row in this movie comes complete with pianist (prisoner number seven), male voice choir (the warden keeps trying to break up the quartet by executing the tenors) and visiting band. And in an early scene, Sternberg gives us one of his great sleazy dives, The Black Cat, a negro nightclub with singers and chorus girls, slouching hat check girl, a weird picket-fence decor motif, and a Greek chorus of patrons. Offscreen dialogue is used consistently in this movie, Sternberg having already grasped that image and sound could be allowed to go their separate ways at times, rather than simply reinforcing one another. Sometimes the level of disconnection gets positively Buñuelian. In The Black Cat, Sternberg appears to have scored the soundtrack like a symphony, with background music, foreground dialogue, and a frightening maniac laugh that breaks through whenever there's a suitable interval. If at times the movie seems primitive (these mobsters sure do enunciate clearly), other moments suggest a sophisticated approach that seems alien to us merely because it represents a path not taken.
Supporting players: Fay Wray is iconic, and it's great to finally see, in a decent copy, what Sternberg and photographer Henry W. Gerrard brought out with their lighting: the wide eyes, popping as if King Kong had stepped into the room in a pinstripe suit, the lightly cleft chin, the heart-shaped face. It's a vocally strange performance, as are they all: "Ritzy" is supposed to be a gangster's moll but also a good girl at heart, and between that and the requirement to speak in a loud clear voice, naturalism doesn't really get a look-in. Much the same is true of handsome Richard Arlen, lightweight and a little stiff, but there are numerous grotesque pleasures in the bit part players, especially on death row.
The warden, Tully Marshall, a background ham since 1914, is a stalking giraffe dripping turtle dolefulness and snap, a fabulous animal out of some medieval bestiary. Various inmates demonstrate a catalogue of tough guy barks, yammers and side-of-the-mouth sneers. And at the centre of it all is George Bancroft as Thunderbolt, the man whose fists can kill.
Bancroft, dismissed as talentless in Sternberg's idiosyncratic autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, may be an acquired taste I'm finally getting. As a supporting player in Stagecoach he certainly works, but as a leading man he's up against considerable disadvantages, including but not limited to a lack of acting ability and a truly repellant physical appearance. The gigantic greased hair lump, like a mile-wide quiff that's somehow collapsed under its own weight and formed a super-dense bezoar of the brow (post-Bancroft, the wet tuft—plughole refugee?—somehow attached itself to the scalp of Ronald Reagan and through him ruled the western world) surmounts a face like a holocaust of suet. The "decorative" mustache, like raspberry sauce drizzled on a cat turd, fails to prettify. The kidney-bean torso may be passed over in silence.
What Bancroft lacks in physical beauty, he attempts to make up for in acting, by acting loud and often. Sometimes he seems to be trying to scare the microphone away, sometimes to hypnotize himself, sometimes to talks so slowly he goes into reverse. It's amazing. I recommend it. Bancroft has achieved a manner of playing beyond both naturalism and comprehension. He doesn't have to be good when he's this, um, striking.
To make sure we like him, Sternberg and the Furthmans equip Thunderbolt with a faithful, stiff-legged old mutt. It works!
Sternberg recalls in his memoir having Bancroft give milk to a kitten in Underworld, a scene which appalled scenarist Ben Hecht with its crass sentimentality, but the director felt he had found a mode of expression that enabled him not only to enjoy commercial success, to explore visual approaches that interested him, and to indulge his taste for decadence and refined or unrefined cruelty, but to covertly express his contempt for public taste. Since our relationship to great filmmakers is often a somewhat submissive one, it seems we're still willing to accept Sternberg's sneers. He will reward us in the end.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.