Traffic cop

ASPHALT has a great charcoal look and is not quite a great film, I think. Because the story moves slowly without surprises. But it’s a curious cross between a Kammerspielefilm (literally, “room-talk-film”, I think) and an epic city symphony, only most if not all of the film’s Berlin is a studio construction.

Director Joe May pulls a strange trick early on: after we meet rookie cop Gustav Frohlich (wonderfully natural and boyish, a stark contrast to his hysteria in METROPOLIS) and his family, May creates an ambiguous splitscreen out of the domestic caged bird and the street traffic outside. After a fast montage of Deutsch-tilted streetcars and regular cars, he repeats the composition with Frohlich’s traffic-cop hand in the centre.

The suggestion that Frohlich resembles the bird is sort of clear — a suggestion of innocence and vulnerability? But the placement of the bird amid the traffic at first seems completely opaque in meaning. I suspect the film’s original score (this is 1929 so I imagine a big film like this would have a score written) may have created a musical connection — tweet tweet from the birdie, then toot toot from the car horns. Karl-Ernst Sasse does a great job with the film’s modern score, it’s really lovely, hire him to do your movies, but the aural connection hasn’t occurred to him.

The other thing I want to say about this film relates it to CONFESSION, probably May’s best Hollywood film, discussed here. The movie is a shot-for-shot remake of Willi Forst’s MAZURKA, except for the last shot. Now it turns out that May also stole the last shot, but from his own film, more or less. Here’s ASPHALT and CONFESSION, side by side:

ASPHALT is the more beautiful, with the foreground figure offsetting the symmetry and single-point perspective, but both shots show the heroine going off to jail, nobly. There you go, two spoilers in one!

I read a bit more about CONFESSION’s derivation. Supposedly it’s not only shot for shot, but each shot was timed to match the original, a crazy idea. Given that the films were made in different languages, matching the length of a dialogue scene with Pola Negri to one with Kay Francis would require a translation of the dialogue that comes to the same duration, or else Kay would have to speak faster or slower than Pola had. Which would make for a different effect on the viewer, whether the shot was the same length or not.

Where did the idea come from to match shot lengths? It seems like a producer’s idea: smart on the surface, dumb underneath. Not because producers are all dumb, but when they get to thinking about problems that are more naturally directorially, they can be. The reverse is also true. Joe May was a producer and a director, so it might be his idea — thinking directorially with his producer head, or vice versa. Or it could be Hal B. Wallis, a very smart guy but prone to smart guy mistakes, or Jack L. Warner. I’d like to know. The idea was new, experimental. And obviously it was discussed, maybe used in publicity, because it’s come down to us as a thing that is known. And maybe it’s not even true, just ballyhoo — I’ll need to run the two films alongside…

2 Responses to “Traffic cop”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Actually, a bird’s tweet might blend seamlessly into a policeman’s whistle.

  2. True, but then a shot of the whistle would be useful.

    Via Eddie Selover on FB: “To your question about whose idea it was to time the shots exactly, it was Joe May’s idea — according to one of the surviving performers (Jane Bryan, I seem to recall) as quoted in Michael Druxman’s book on Basil Rathbone from 1974. Apparently the entire cast found it very difficult and fairly ridiculous.”

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