“You know, I haven’t been out in a boat since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” ~ Groucho Marx, HORSE FEATHERS.
Irving Pichel, left, plays a strong D.A. with a strange M.O.
Now, thanks to a marvellous man in in Kentucky, I too have seen Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 film, which I have been simply ulceratingto get my hands on since around the time I saw my last Sternberg-Dietrich. And it’s a pretty good copy, too, recorded off what seems to be The Love Channel(the word LOVE appears in the bottom corner of the screen occasionally, and I don’t think Sternberg put it there, although ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE WITH THAT GUY).
The film had something of a chequered history, what with Murnau and Carl Mayer ripping off a chunk of the plot for SUNRISE (based on this and NOSFERATU, a case could be made for calling Murnau the cinema’s most brilliant plagiarist), Eisenstein writing a screenplay for Chaplin to produce (it never happened) and then Sternberg, on a break from Marlene Dietrich projects, making his film at Paramount, who were then promptly sued by the book’s author, Theodore Dreiser. Read all about it HERE.
Sternberg claims in his dryly hilarious autobiography Fun In A Chinese Laundry that Dreiser, upset that the film misrepresented the book, pointed out several outrageous changes in the movie, which Sternberg then showed to the court were actually faithful reproductions of scenes in the original novel. It seems quite possible.
Plotting a course…for MURDER!
Without having read any Dreiser (which, in a pre-Internet world might well disqualify me from writing anything at all about the movie, but hey, aren’t you lucky?), I get the impression that a great amount of incident has been retained from the book, which a more conventional, less faithful adaptation would have discarded. This results in an odd structure and odd pacing, with leading man Phillips Holmes (why “Phillips”, plural? Does he contain multitudes?) in particular barrelling through some amazingly on-the-nose lines. Long sentences are reeled off without pause, one after the other: people don’t make statements, they produce arguments followed by evidence, counter-arguments and conclusions, and whenever one speech ends, another character will barge in with some more. It’s quite a curious effect, and different from any of the familiar brands of “clunkiness” one might expect to find in an early talkie. Sternberg was a tireless experimenter, particularly with the properties of the new soundtrack, and was always finding new ways to make dialogue sound weird. Dietrich was a great help in this, of course, with her bizarre stresses and rhythms, and one only needs to look at SHANGHAI EXPRESS, where the entire cast was drilled to speak in the rhythms of a train engine, to see Sternberg’s peculiar mind at work.
Compare with SCARFACE, also shot by Lee Garmes. Hawks was always stealing from Sternberg! (Compare UNDERWORLD and RIO BRAVO opening scenes.)
One result of the compression of a fat book (I may not have read any Dreiser but I’ve held them in my hands and winced) into a tight 95 minutes is a certain brusqueness to the characterisation. People are always telling each other flat out what they feel, so subtext has no foothold and any actual acting is rendered redundant, since everything is already being expressed verbally.
Holmes makes the most of this by being as flat as possible, announcing his involvement in a hit-and-run accident to his mother as if he was giving her a recipe for crumbly nut roast while in a bit of a hurry. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and renders his character’s attraction to the opposite sex quite mysterious. Fiona, who found Holmes quite winning as a helpless sap in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, lost all patience with him here: “Why do all the women fancy him? He’s a BORING BASTARD! And he’s CRAP.”
“Women love a crap, boring bastard,” I told her.
Trees are important in this movie. See how many of them YOU can spot.
Not for nothing is Sternberg renowned as a great director of women, and the two contrasting female leads are radiantly photographed and allowed to be more interesting, although the script murders any real feeling of energy or depth. Sylvia Sydney uses her breathtaking smile to great advantage, though, and is so inherently adorable that she creates audience sympathy without any assistance from the film.
And Frances Dee is much more seductive than I’ve previously seen her. Hard to believe it’s the same actress in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I guess that’s the effects of the Production Code for you. Also, a sign of Miss Dee’s versatility, and Sternberg’s famed ability to bring out the best, or baddest, in a female performer.
My favourite actors further down the cast list were Irving Pichel as the sneering D.A. (Pichel was also a director himself, but his immoderately reptilian performance here suggests a man not in full control of his faculties) and Charles Middleton as Holmes’ defense counsel, the Emperor Ming. I love the fact that most of Holmes’ cross-examination takes place while he’s sitting in a boat in the middle of the courtroom. I love the fact that his lawyer is Ming the Merciless. And I especially love how the two lawyers square off for a bout of fisticuffs in mid-trial, as if to settle the defendant’s guilt with bare-knuckle violence. The most powerful legal argument in the world: face-punching.
Ming for the defense.
Throughout the story, Sternberg provides helpful intertitles, silent movie fashion, to cover the narrative ellipses, some of which may come from the necessary book-to-film compression: “Summer”, “Late Autumn” etc, until the film starts to feel like a bunch of Ozu movies bolted together. But this is another opportunity for Sternberg to emphasise part of the film’s imagery: water. And trees again.
I love all the strangeness of early talkies. Early soundies are great too — where they have music and FX but people still communicate by intertitles. And I go into raptures over PART-TALKIES, where a silent movie suddenly starts chattering away to itself, then randomly STOPS. Beautiful.
Of course, Sternberg being the perverse individualist he was (read his book, it’s like a Rosetta Stone for the films, an illuminating — yet still mysterious — experience unlike any film autobiography I’ve ever encountered) is obviously responsible for a lot of the film’s strange power. It’s not just a function of the film’s age. The strangest thing perhaps is that it DOES have power. The slow plod of the unfolding narrative, the hinged wooden movements of the characters, the utter lack of sympathy engendered for the protagonist, none of these things prevent it having a weird magic. Apart from some scenes of luminously lovely cinematography (from the mighty Lee Garmes, who shot three of Sternberg’s Dietrich movies), there’s also the really soul-freezing moment when the sentence is read out in court and Holmes reacts to the news of his impending execution…