Josef Von Sternberg’s rock solid adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy has been long overshadowed for a number of reasons. Sergei Eisenstein came to Hollywood to make a film of Dreiser’s book, but because his lengthy screenplay baffled studio heads, he was subsequently fired from the project. After Von Sternberg took over and made his version, a furious Dreiser took legal action to have the movie withdrawn because he hated the liberties the director had taken with his novel. To top all this off, George Stevens made a still highly regarded version of the material, the slow and morbid A Place in the Sun, a film whose impact is blurred by the victimized beauty of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and sabotaged by a miscalculated performance from Shelley Winters.
Von Sternberg called his work on An American Tragedy a “little finger exercise” in his 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. But his version trumps A Place in the Sun at every turn and stands on its own as a full-blooded, uncompromised vision of temptation and abject cowardice. Though the film is compressed, it never feels rushed, and the full sociological impact of Dreiser’s book is captured in Von Sternberg’s flowingly poetic visuals. He also made inspired use of his three lead actors: Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee.
In A Place in the Sun, George (Clift) has to choose between the good life with luscious Angela (Taylor) and poverty with the whining Alice (Winters). It’s a tragedy all right, but it has little to do with America. In Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, Clyde (Holmes) is tempted by the rich, alluring Sondra (Dee), but he is stymied by the helpless vulnerability of his factory girlfriend Roberta (Sidney). Clift is practically given no choice: If only to shut her up, who wouldn’t gladly push Shelley Winters out of a rowboat for Elizabeth Taylor? Von Sternberg emphasizes that Clyde has a clear choice when he rows the pregnant Roberta out onto a lake to drown her, and we see that money and sex trump sweetness and poverty, even if murder is the price.
In A Place in the Sun, when Winters’s character falls into the lake, Stevens cuts away quickly so as not to steal sympathy from George. In An American Tragedy, Von Sternberg lets you see Roberta as she drowns, and he shows Clyde swimming away from her. It’s perfectly clear that Clyde decides not to help her. And Sidney, in her most touching performance, is so lovely that she makes the man’s decision seem truly monstrous. The actress was born in the Bronx and she generally spoke in a strained, consciously homogenized voice. Von Sternberg pulls out her New York accent during her last despairing scenes, and it gives her performance an air of revelation that aids the central conflict on the lake.
Von Sternberg makes inspired use of water imagery all through the film, so that when we’re shut up in a courtroom in the last scenes, we feel that something has been lost. As Clyde’s lawyers grandstand, Von Sternberg transfixes our attention with views of a huge tree outside a window. He stresses the beauty of nature in the soft focus photography and the ugliness of the people inside speaks for itself. When Clyde is sentenced to death, he turns to his mother and gives her an unforgettably satanic smile. Like America, he didn’t “get a good start,” and he is finally condemned for his moral bankruptcy. Even though Von Sternberg dismissed the film, it belongs with the best of his non-Marlene Dietrich work (The Shanghai Gesture, Anatahan), and it’s a model of tough-mindedness that should have pleased Dreiser.