Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

A fabulous speck on the Earth’s surface

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2018 by dcairns

Well, that’s what the opening voice-over tells us MACAO is. Quite why it should want to say that, I’m sure I don’t know. But this is less a Josef Von Sternberg film than it is a Howard Hughes production, with all the mental derangement that implies. The “plot” involves Robert Mitchum being mistaken for a police investigator, who is really William Bendix — but we never really find out who Mitchum is, do we? Nobody in particular, it seems. Then there’s Jane Russell as a lounge singer, and nasty casino owner Brad Dexter, a notably colourless heavy, and crooked local cop Thomas Gomez.

Hughes declared in an internal memo that his films at RKO would be about two things, “fucking and fighting.” But really they all seem to be out convoluted webs of betrayal, usually reaching a point where the hero and heroine should hate each other, but instead end up together as per Hollywood tradition. It all gets extremely convoluted without you caring what happens to anybody in the least. Sternberg’s JET PILOT is an extreme example of this, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh’s “romantic” sparring intensified by the fact that they’re meant to be representatives of the US and USSR military. That movie was greatly compromised by Hughes to the point that by the time it opened, RKO was defunct and all the planes were out of date. MACAO fared even worse: “instead of fingers in that pie,” reported Sternberg, “a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomies in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”

Nicholas Ray was uncredited second director, apparently responsible for a lot of the Gloria Grahame bits (he married her and at least we got IN A LONELY PLACE out of that). He claimed he tried to achieve a Sternberg look, but most of this film is flat and prosaic, despite the exotic sound stage setting. But every ten minutes or so a shot sings out, mostly in the casino, often dreamy tracking shots that aren’t going anywhere in particular. In fact, it seems a rule in this movie that the more beautiful the shot, the less it has to do with its surroundings, the greater the sense of its having been dropped in as a random cutaway. But there’s almost nothing to cut away FROM.

And here is our fragment of cinematic beauty for today: the phantom tombola of Philip Ahn.


She’s Up!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 4, 2018 by dcairns

My SCARLET EMPRESS piece is live at The Chiseler. Great response to this one on Twitter — thanks to @CriterionDaily for publicising it.

So, we’re more than halfway through the Sternberg-Dietrich canon (out of sequence), with THE BLUE ANGEL, SHANGHAI EXPRESS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN still to come. Hell will have no surprises!

Cinephiles everywhere should be ordering Criterion’s forthcoming box set of all six Paramount films (and they should already own THE BLUE ANGEL in some format or other).

The Sunday Intertitle: A Silent with Sound

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by dcairns

A royal birth!

In THE SCARLET EMPRESS, Von Sternberg brings back various aspects of silent cinema — long, wordless passages, scenes played on detail shots — and intertitles! Often these start as white-on-black text and then a background shot fades up behind so that the text becomes a superimposition. An advance on the old titles, which were more interruptive.

Sternberg, however, hated the live accompaniment provided for silents, because he had no control over it. So here he can finally play long visual scenes with synchronized score, and he got so into this that he elbowed the conductor aside and took up the baton himself, despite having no training. Chaplin could do it, so could he!

Continuing my jaunt through the Sternberg-Dietrich collabs for The Chiseler, a project with new currency thanks to the forthcoming Criterion box set. The previous installments are here, here and here. Hopefully we’ll have another tomorrow.