Grades: Underworld: B+; The Last Command: A; The Docks Of New York: A
Inevitably, any mention of Vienna-born, New York-raised director Josef von Sternberg is tied to his iconic star and muse Marlene Dietrich, and not without cause: Their seven films together, including The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus, Morocco, and The Scarlet Empress, gave her an exotic aura that other actresses and performers have tried to imitate since, with limited success. To take nothing away from Dietrich, a great deal of that aura had to do with von Sternberg’s meticulous craft, characterized by a subtle, caressing lighting scheme that not only brought out the unique contours of her face, but gave the backdrops in her movies a romantic texture that was key to her allure. Produced before he hooked up with Dietrich, the films in Criterion’s essential “3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg” box grant the director his own spotlight, and make a compelling argument that the advent of sound was as much loss as gain.
Working from a story by famed playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht, von Sternberg’s 1927 hit Underworld set the template for American gangster films to come, including the Hecht-penned Scarface. Though not as sophisticated or visually striking as the other films in the set, Underworld imbues gangsterism with a subtle (and perhaps unintended) glamour that stuck, as did its propulsive images of explosions, car chases, duplicitous molls, and rival kingpins. Yet von Sternberg was ever the romantic. His interest wasn’t in criminal mischief, but in how it heightens a love story complicated by jealousy, loyalty, and lust. George Bancroft stars as a swaggering kingpin who suspects (correctly) that an enemy is eying his moll (Evelyn Brent), but misses the deeper attraction that develops between her and his right-hand man, a reformed drunk (Clive Brook) who owes Bancroft his life. Though von Sternberg handles big setpieces like a bank robbery and a prison break with aplomb, they merely raise the stakes on a more intimate, thorny conflict behind the scenes.
Only a year later, von Sternberg took an astonishing leap forward with 1928’s The Last Command, a witty, profound melodrama that sends up Hollywood while charting the epic tragedy of a man swept along by the forces of history. It’s also an unforgettable vehicle for Best Actor winner Emil Jannings, whose famously emphatic expressions give life to a former czarist leader deposited in Hollywood after landing on the wrong end of the Russian Revolution. After a prologue that finds Jannings queuing up to be an extra in a war movie, the film flashes back to his command in Russia, where he labored intently and sometimes cruelly to keep the insurgents at bay. His affair with a comely revolutionary blurs the line between coercion and love, and his inevitable downfall is handled in a way that’s simultaneously ironic and heartbreaking. Finally, past and present come together in an ending that attests, against all odds, to the transformative power of the movies.
Later that year, as talkies were starting to eclipse silent movies, von Sternberg produced one of the most beautiful films of any era in The Docks Of New York, an affecting tale of love and redemption that’s memorable as much for its evocative backdrop as anything that happens in front of it. Bancroft again stars as a loveable brute, this time a filthy coal-stoker on a cargo ship who’s given one night’s leave in the city and seems determined to get as much out of it as possible. After rescuing a hard-living dancehall girl (Betty Compson), Bancroft takes her to a waterfront dive and arranges a quickie marriage, with the intent to leave for another port in the morning. As with the romances in Underworld and The Last Command, the strength of their bond becomes a matter of great suspense, but beyond that, von Sternberg captures the raucousness and grit of a lower-class bar and the gentle light that can shine on lost souls. It’s one of those films where every frame could be hung on the wall, and each tells a story.
Key features: The 95-page liner notes include essays on all three films, Hecht’s original (and much different) draft for Underworld, and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography, discussing Emil Jannings. The discs each have a choice of different scores, as well as scholarly video essays on Underworld and The Last Command, plus a 1968 television interview with von Sternberg on The Docks Of New York.