USA (80 mi) 1927 d: Josef von Sternberg
Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, using strong contrasts between darkness and light, von Sternberg often transcended his contemporaries in terms of sheer visual style, creating a visual lushness that figures most prominently in establishing atmospheric mood, where nearly all his films use mist, fog, and contrasts between shadows and light to set the tone for his films, where he was such a master of lighting that he was the only director of his day to earn membership in the American Society of Cinematographers. Though born in Vienna to humble origins, von Sternberg lived most of his childhood in New York City raised by his Jewish Orthodox father Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army. After dropping out of high school, having difficulty with the English language, he set out determined to learn on his own, finding work repairing sprocket holes and cleaning movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I before earning his first credit as an assistant director on THE MYSTERY OF THE YELLOW RIBBON (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on the British film BY DIVINE RIGHT (1923), where he picked up the aristocratic title of “von” in the listed credits at the suggestion of actor Elliott Dexter, before gaining the notice of studio executives with the surprise success of his independently produced directorial debut in THE SALVATION HUNTERS (1925), a starkly poetic tale of poverty and depression that he made in three weeks for $4900, where the grim naturalism was hissed at during its premiere before later being hailed as a masterpiece by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, becoming a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film. MGM refused to release his next picture, THE EXQUISITE SINNER (1925), which was eventually lost, while his third film THE SEA GULL (1926) was destroyed by producer Chaplin as a tax write-off. Finding himself an assistant director at Paramount, he was called in to help fix Frank Lloyd’s CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), reshooting about half the film in three days, mostly at night when the actors were available, after which he was allowed to make UNDERWORLD, with a script written by Ben Hecht. Paramount then shelved the film, with Hecht asking to have his name removed from the credits, before a New York theater needed a last minute movie to screen, and the film created an instant sensation, exclusively by word of mouth, where the theater had to stay open all night showing it. Often credited as the first Hollywood gangster film, actor George Bancroft became a star, while Ben Hecht won an Oscar.
Von Sternberg brought a distinctly European style to American studios, blending German Expressionism with elaborately exotic production design, creating sensuous images with a frank eroticism, becoming something of a visual poet with an obsession for lighting and detail, known for the slow pace of his films, with their long dissolves and strange narrative twists, an aesthetic that evolved from the Silent era. He believed that the story didn’t matter, but trusted instead the artificial aspects of cinema, preferring illusion to reality, where he wanted control over all the elements, not just the photography and editing, but every inflection and movement of the actors, working closely with costume designers and set designers, providing his own sketches before hearing their ideas, never designing sets, but introducing props to “improve” them, where the peak of his creativity are his films from 1930 – 1935. In a book review of John Baxter’s Von Sternberg, Book Review: Von Sternberg - WSJ.com, Scott Eyman from The Wall Street Journal describes von Sternberg:
He was a man who kept large, aggressive dogs, who avoided direct eye contact, who presented his opinions as incontrovertible fact and who treated everyone with unconcealed disdain or contempt. On the set, he had a blackboard; if crew members or actors wanted to talk to him, they had to write their names on the blackboard, and he’d schedule an appointment. “The only way to succeed,” he once said, “is to make people hate you. That way they remember you.”
UNDERWORLD generated a series of Prohibition-era Hollywood gangster films that followed, like Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (1930), James Cagney in PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), and Paul Muni in SCARFACE (1932), films that became synonymous with the myth of American individualism, featuring outlaws who liked to flout authority, becoming sympathetic heroes struggling to survive. But von Sternberg had little interest in the behind-the-scenes world of organized crime, preferring to focus instead on the particular characteristics of several of the characters, expressed through a visual mastery of storytelling where he infuses wry humor in the title card commentary of onscreen events. As the audience is introduced to George Bancroft as bankrobber unparalleled “Bull” Weed, the bank behind him explodes as the title card claims he’s taking out a “personal loan.” Staring at him as he steps out of the bank is none other than “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook), a man down on his luck who has hit the bottle, so Weed kidnaps him to guarantee his silence. Wensel claims he might be a drunk, but he’s not a squealer, promising to be “silent as a Rolls Royce.” Taken by his scrappy nature, Weed keeps him on as his right-hand man, getting him cleaned up and off the sauce, buying him some clothes, aided by his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent), who, you guessed it, is always dressed in feathers. Wensel never forgets her kindness while remaining loyal to his boss. This love triangle essentially forms the basis of the story.
Evelyn Brent’s Feathers is an interesting prelude to the later iconic works with Marlene Dietrich, who made seven films with von Sternberg, including some of the most dazzling films of the era, where Dietrich was his greatest model, someone he dressed in sequins and feathers and stunning evening gowns, even a tuxedo, where in close up, with the right lighting, he could create an image of ravishing beauty. Brent, by contrast, is more subdued and the film more conventional, especially at the outset, where it takes awhile for the young director to find his patented style, yet Feathers likes what she sees in her cleaned-up project to remake Wensel into a well-dressed gentleman, a lawyer when he’s not drunk, where his calm reserve offers a contrast to the demented laughter heard from Weed, yet in a typical von Sternberg theme, both feel guilty for succumbing to their forbidden sexual desires. We can catch a whiff of Dietrich’s masculine tone when a bored Feathers tells Wensel, “C’mon, let’s drift.” The film is pre-Code and has its share of erotically charged come-ons, but perhaps the central sequence of the film is an all-night gangster’s ball, where one night a year all the criminals declare a truce from one another and have a rollicking, alcohol-driven affair, where they all buy votes to have their girls named Queen of the Ball. It’s a rather grotesque affair, edited with a montage of close ups showing inebriated individuals, each uglier than the last, where emotional and physical violence erupt amid a storm of confetti and streamers. Feathers makes eyes for Wensel under the careful watch of Weed, but the one that gets riled up is Weed’s arch enemy Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler). Leave it to Ben Hecht to name a character after the then-banned book Ulysses. Mulligan makes his move on Feathers once Weed is collapsed drunk, but he’s awakened in time to catch him in the act of raping Feathers, shooting him on the spot. Using an economy of means, von Sternberg shows the arrest, sentencing, and jailing of Weed in just a few short scenes, but he escapes before his execution, vowing to get his revenge, where all he’s heard about while sitting in jail is how Feathers and Rolls Royce have become an item. The finale, however, the notorious chase sequence, has an interesting existential tone about it which is unlike most gangster dramas. Nonetheless, this hard-boiled gangster drama is an early indication of themes with a visual stylization that would ultimately become film noir.