Jonas Sternberg, whose impoverished Orthodox Jewish family raised him in both his native Vienna and New York before he began his film career repairing damaged reels, acquired his “von”-enhanced moniker in the early 1920s shortly before he was first acclaimed as a genius of the medium for producing an arty independent feature, The Salvation Hunters, for less than $5,000. Soon set back by having an MGM project reshot by another director and another completed film suppressed by its producer, Charlie Chaplin, Josef von Sternberg landed at Paramount Pictures, where he made a string of technically dazzling, often enigmatic melodramas that cemented his reputation as a supreme stylist of lighting and montage. The three surviving productions of this period, newly packaged by the Criterion Collection, now seem both confident, maverick not-quite-genre pictures and worthy precursors of von Sternberg’s signature collaboration that followed, the seven early sound movies he made with his superstar “creation,” Marlene Dietrich.
Von Sternberg opened his breakthrough Underworld, often cited as the template for the succeeding dozen years of urban gangster films, with a bang. Burly felon Bull Weed (a larger-than-life George Bancroft) dynamites a bank and single-handedly flees with the loot, before the admiring eyes of a drunken ex-lawyer (Clive Brook) whom the thug adopts as an advisor and mascot, christening him “Rolls Royce.” Playing out a triangle of loyalty and love with Bull’s aptly named moll Feathers, sassily embodied by a plumage-and-fringe-swathed Evelyn Brent, the protagonists are drawn with a mix of verve and melancholy, but the director is the dominant personality, with his fluid cutting among a raucous basement bar, cold-water flats, and gun battles, matched by the florid frame-filling of an adroit entertainer. The humor aggressively tilts toward the later lampoonery of Billy Wilder than Cagney-style street wit; of a gangsters’ annual ball, a title card proclaims “Everyone with a police record will be there,” and jug-eared comedian Larry Semon brings vaudevillian mirth to all his scenes as a clownish gang underling.
If Underworld falls a little short in its third act because it was surpassed by its descendants (both the Bull-under-siege climax and a neon sign flashing “THE CITY IS YOURS” anticipate scenarist Ben Hecht’s script five years later for Scarface), it retains a flavor all its own; it’s entirely of von Sternberg’s aestheticized world, not Capone’s Chicago. Brook and Brent’s softhearted and dubiously motivated fealty to the crude, swaggering Bancroft was among the elements that prompted Hecht to ask for his name to be taken off the movie (until it became a hit and won him an Oscar), but from an abortive prison break via hearse to an attempted rape in a confetti-strewn recess of a ballroom bacchanal, it’s the assured, surprising visual landscape that makes the 81 minutes fly, with broad emotion and archetypes preferred over complex plotting and nuanced characterization. Von Sternberg made limited but memorable use of technical flamboyance: the POV camera rocking back from a punch to the gut, a montage of grotesque partygoers’ mugs, the holdup of a jewelry store announced by a bullet hole bursting open on a clockface. Perhaps most crucially lacking a powerful foe for Bull, whose seething rival (Fred Kohler) has a flower shop for a front, Underworld nonetheless announced the presence of a crackling new artist on the Paramount lot when it became an unexpected smash.
In the following year, von Sternberg helmed the ambitiously structured melodrama The Last Command, the most epic-scaled entry in this trilogy, starring the German actor Emil Jannings as a Hollywood extra cunningly cast by a Russian immigrant director (William Powell) in a war drama set at the 1917 revolution…because the filmmaker recognizes Jannings as Sergius Alexander, the former commander-in-chief of the czarist army. In a remarkable, witty sequence, the glassy-eyed, elderly ex-general lines up with a chaotic swarm of bit players to collect their costumes and prop rifles from a surly crew of studio grunts. Von Sternberg takes a jaundiced view of mobs, whether they’re backlot extras or the Bolshevik rebels seen in The Last Command’s principal time frame, a lengthy flashback to the fall of imperial Russia and Jannings’s grand duke, who is undone by the tides of history and his tragic dalliance with proletarian actress Natalie (Evelyn Brent again), “the most dangerous revolutionist in Russia!”
Jannings’s doomed, whip-wielding Sergius is the fulcrum of the first of von Sternberg’s “stories of male mortification leading to self-destruction,” as the critic Tag Gallagher terms them. When during an assignation at the grand duke’s headquarters, Natalie finds herself unable to shoot him like a good Red would, it merely leads to a torturous, drawn-out demise for the general, whose train is waylaid by revolutionaries in a spectacular 20-minute sequence, big in scope but intimately sadistic. As throngs of Bolshies mock, beat, and spit at Sergius (with Natalie joining in to stall his hanging and effect his escape), Jannings suffers like the lead in a passion play, in an equally intense but more physical humiliation than the one inflicted on him by Dietrich two years later in von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. After the mob’s smoky, hellishly lit assault on the military train, Sergius is coerced to stoke the locomotive engine, its fiery maw promising an infernal destiny. The segment, bridging the return to the Hollywood Sergius with his lateral head tremor and salvaged imperial medal pinned to his military costume, is held together by Jannings’s face in close-up—bleeding, astonished, betrayed, and transforming itself into a mask of trauma.
With his bravura handling of the spectacle and action of the movie’s revolutionary bulk, von Sternberg’s satirical touch when The Last Command returns to the 1928 film studio is balanced by the pathos of Jannings’s delusions, vividly summoning Red hordes behind the barbed wire as he stands in a trench, restored to leading an army under spotlight and wind machine. (Alas, Powell’s émigré director is frustratingly characterized as an avenger bent on the general’s destruction who sentimentally turns into a eulogist when it comes to pass.) Winning Jannings an Oscar (along with his performance that year in The Way of All Flesh), the film was its maker’s most ambitious and accomplished vision to date of a pitiable life derailed by fate and circumstance.
Coal-stoking on any ship that will have him is the full-time work of hardass Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) in The Docks of New York, released later in 1928 and, on its knockabout surface, an about-face in tone from the Jannings vehicle. Though the nighttime waterfront sets are shrouded in fog and shadow, occasionally pierced with expressionistic shafts of light, aggressive character comedy and hardscrabble romance dominate. Writer Jules Furthman, later a creator of Howard Hawks’s tough-talking, tight-knit communities, and von Sternberg make Bancroft’s two-fisted, pre-WWI sailor a near-caricature of machismo and give him a memorable roost in the Sandbar tavern, where he drinks from beer barrels hoisted over his head and fends off brawlers, surly bartenders and a pistol-waving proprietress. This sawdust and testosterone is augmented by the best-drawn female characters in the trilogy: suicidal kewpie Mae (Betty Compson) is plucked from the river by Bill, but though she falls hard for him, you know she’s not to be messed with when she casually strikes matches on the cracked walls of a flophouse; slouchy engineer’s wife Lou (Olga Baclanova) treads the floor of the Sandbar with promiscuous dancing and withering cynicism; both eclipse the largely decorative Brent in presence and nerve.
Bancroft’s hard-living seaman Bill isn’t as blustery as his Underworld goon, but the way the fate of his improvisatory marriage to Mae rests on whether he can transcend his self-image as “just a dirty stoker” sneaks up on the audience, and von Sternberg knows not to push his hero’s valiant stand in a closing night-court scene into bathos. The crowded scenes of revelers in the Sandbar, hooting and shouting sympathetically as Bill and Mae are married by a reluctant parson, linger in memory just as the wiseguys and molls from the gangsters’ ball in the first Paramount film do. Before he secured his immortality by training his lens on the face and form of Dietrich, von Sternberg showed particular flair in these three late silents for locating the joy, anguish, and doubts to be found in the man who’s set apart from, or absorbed into, his tribe or society. It’s a semi-forgotten legacy that this collection valuably restates.
The digitally restored transfers, one takes it on faith, have been cleaned up as well as they possibly can be. Still, given the neglect that's filled most of the eight decades since their production, it's unsurprising that there are a fair number of scratches and fleeting instability in certain scenes. But the lighting and photographic effects that made Josef von Sternberg's reputation, from the chiaroscuro of nighttime urban labyrinths to a woman's teary-eyed POV shot of a needle and thread melting into soft focus, are all vibrantly effective, and leave no doubt that cinematographers Bert Glennon (in the first two films) and Harold Rosson (in The Docks of New York) were essential partners in creating these cinematic dreamscapes.
Each film is supplied with two stereo scores; one by Robert Israel (generally using silent-era-styled arrangements) for all three titles, the Alloy Orchestra's more idiosyncratic tracks for Underworld and The Last Command, and a piano/vocals treatment by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton for The Docks of New York. All range from good to occasionally sublime, but the different composers inevitably make similar choices in some scenes, using Russian classical and folk melodies for The Last Command, and early 20th-century player-piano pop tunes for The Docs of New York's waterfront dive bar.
The supplement package for this boxed set surpasses the high Criterion standard. Janet Bergstrom's visual essay on Underworld details von Sternberg's early-career bumps that preceded his being hired to work as "director of photographic innovation" for the Ben Hecht-written gangster drama, a sign that Paramount brass thought his instincts perhaps too rarefied to be unleashed on handling actors. Stating that the director used the fast-paced crime milieu to establish his skill "with action as well as abstraction," Bergstrom emphasizes his felicitous collaboration with studio art-department head Hans Dreier in creating sets and matte drawings to give the film's visual schemes heft and otherworldliness, and quotes Evelyn Brent's accounts of von Sternberg's painstaking attention to detail.
Even better is Tag Gallagher's aesthetic/biographical appreciation, "Von Sternberg Till '29," which manages in 35 minutes to encapsulate the filmmaker's philosophy ("Human beings hide behind an impenetrable veil") and extract his most common themes and tropes through myriad clips from his silent work. Gallagher notes how the films use cigarette smoke, mist, and fog to give depth and interest to both the space on screen and the characters; how the histrionic physical gestures and movements of the actors camouflage the subtext found in close-ups of their gazes ("The eyes are the show"); and that the essence of the characters' struggle is to "recreate" themselves morally "in a bestial world." More guarded, yet frequently blunt, is the director himself in a 1968 Swedish TV profile on the third disc, who speaks with the authoritative bearing of the college professor he had become: "I don't imbue films with messages," he insists, and claiming that "I handled film before I saw any," says that his artistic ideas were shaped by literature and painting. The doc features clips of his unfinished I, Claudius (starring Charles Laughton) and a Japanese World War II tale, Anatahan.
The set's generous 96-page booklet features solid essays by Geoffrey O'Brien on Underworld (a work of "unyielding precision"), Anton Kaes on The Last Command (an exploration of "the nature of acting and pretense"), and Luc Sante on The Docks of New York (which he credits as elevated "secondhand pulp" in the manner of Brecht and Weill). Along with profuse illustration with many striking production stills, there is Hecht's original story treatment for Underworld, far more hardboiled than the finished film; brief accounts by the composers of the scores on their methods and intentions; and a delightful chapter from von Sternberg's autobiography in which he lambastes The Last Command star Emil Jannings (after acknowledging his gifts) as an insecure, childish, gluttonous handful; it's likely to send you immediately in search of the entire book.
A thorough, focused study of the first major films of an artist who "wrote with a camera."