Saturday, February 18, 2012

#418: Anatahan

1953, TSPDT Rank #696

This is the sixth and final film of my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

The last film Josef von Sternberg completed, which he continued to work on re-editing after its release in 1953, eventually abandoning the project in 1958, is definitely a strange final entry in his filmography. After being released from his contract to Howard Hughes, Sternberg made this film, about Japanese soldiers holding the Pacific island of Anatahan for seven years after World War II had ended, in Japan, with a Japanese crew, and completely outside of the Hollywood studio system, which had found little use for him since Marlene Dietrich ceased to star in his films anymore. Instead of having the story told with Japanese dialogue and released with dialogue, the actors have only minimal amounts of dialogue, which is explained, along with the story, by Sternberg himself, who narrates in English for the entire duration of the film. Sternberg seems to use the framework the plot gives in order to reflect on the duality of human nature - civilization and savagery, friend and foe, heroism and denial, life and death - which is clearly evident in the film's lyrical and often symmetrical cinematography and thoughtful commentary on the action taking place. The film is sometimes marred by being repetitive, by the plentiful plot inconsistencies, or by the contradictory explanations given through the narration, but ultimately turns out being somewhat more than the sum of its parts, rather than an incoherent mess. Not the best of Josef von Sternberg's, but as a final statement, this existential war drama works quite well (especially considering the difficulties of making a film in a foreign land with a crew of foreign people), and is also interesting as a rare look at Japanese soldiers from an American's point of view.

(Rating: 7/10)

Friday, February 17, 2012

#417: The Shanghai Gesture

1941, TSPDT Rank #681

At long last, here is the fifth film of my Josef von Sternberg marathon, which has regrettably been drawn out to about a month due to time restraints.

Josef von Sternberg made this film while lying on a couch. This just goes to show how good a director he'd become, because in my opinion, it is legitimately a very great film, one of my favorites I've seen from him so far. At this point in his career he was somewhat down and out, being that him and the star who had made him famous had parted ways, and Hollywood didn't have that much use for him anymore. However, this low-profile gem of a film has been praised as everything from a masterpiece to incoherent trash by those who have seen it since Sternberg directed it from his couch. But it's nothing if not effective, not to mention that it lays out almost all of the classic film noir archetypes in its complex script. Many describe the plot as being incoherent and difficult to follow, but if this is the case, it's only because the film doesn't really have a plot, it's more of an ensemble film - with a large set of diverse, uniquely seedy characters, most of whom live their lives primarily in a Shanghai casino. The set design of the casino is probably what makes the film so effective, with its labyrinthine, subterranean construction, the constant sickening bright light that shines always so that the time of day is unknown, and the ceaselessly swarming hoards of people wasting their lives and money in the deep central vortex of the building. The setting has an atmosphere of dingy wickedness, which seems to have enveloped all of the characters in different ways. The ways that the characters interact with each other are very interesting, and the film is visually fantastic - with a wild, hallucinatory feel. Some may find The Shanghai Gesture too absurd, but I consider it an innovative film noir that is not like any other. Possibly one of Sternberg's most underrated, I highly recommend it.

(Rating: 9/10)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

#416: The Devil Is a Woman

1935, TSPDT Rank #575

The fourth film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

After the peak of enormous proportions that was The Scarlet Empress, it seemed quite inevitable that the next (and final) collaboration between Sternberg and Dietrich would be a fall from grace, and indeed, it is very much a minor film, especially by the standards of Sternberg's previous track record. In fact, I'm a bit confused by its inclusion on this list instead of some of the other Sternberg-Dietrich films that were left out. Maybe it's because some people prefer the relative simplicity of this film as an antidote to the complex, overpowering madness of The Scarlet Empress. Also, this film does contain some very visually pleasing cinematography, with many excellent frame compositions, but there's nothing that lights the screen ablaze quite like The Scarlet Empress did. And although Marlene Dietrich is still extremely alluring and luminous (it's impossible to take your eyes off of her) whenever she is on the screen, her performance is nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as her Catherine the Great. But even though the fantastic cinematography and smoldering presence of Dietrich are enough to at least make this worth a watch, the rest of actors are terrible, the script is second-rate at best, and the film often threatens to collapse under its own weak foundation, although it never does. The only other good point about this film is that it seems to be another one of Sternberg's contributions to the later film noir movement (the overall feel and look of his silent film, Underworld, laid much groundwork for both the gangster genre and film noir's style), in that Dietrich's character might as well be a template for the classic femme fatale character that appears in a grand majority of the films noir in cinematic history. Watch Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity from about 10 years later when the movement was really in full swing and you'll see what I mean. But for The Devil Is a Woman itself, the two things it should be known for are its status as the last of the great run of Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations, and its contributions to the great collective of classic films we enthusiasts label film noir. Without it we would still have The Scarlet Empress, but we might not have all of those beautiful and icy women to watch ruining mens' lives.

Next up I have Sternberg's first true contribution to the film noir movement proper. Coming soon.

(Rating: 6/10)

#415: The Scarlet Empress

1934, TSPDT Rank #299

The third film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

The Scarlet Empress is definitely the most bizarre, lavish, insane, beautiful, intense, ridiculous, and masterful period piece I have ever seen. I had heard all this and more about this penultimate collaboration between Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich many times over in the past, but I never believed it could be true until I actually witnessed it for myself. Actually, its glorious madness far exceeded what I had heard. I'm sure Ken Russell must have got quite a bit of his inspiration from this film, as I was reminded of his work in many of the sequences. I don't know a lot about what was going on in Sternberg's personal life at this point, but it seems like his collaboration with Dietrich had reached an overly decadent peak of greatness which could not possibly be topped, and which seems to signal a certain absence of sanity. But sometimes what is lacking in a great artist's sanity is balanced out by the greatness of their work - and that would definitely be the case with this film. Sternberg had obviously mastered the process of making sound pictures since his unsteady direction of The Blue Angel four years earlier, as evidenced by the perfect synthesis of blisteringly wild Russian music, blinding lighting, brilliant camerawork, grotesque and extravagant sets, and performances which are well at home with the lunacy that surrounds them. Marlene Dietrich's performance and overall presence is too sublime to accurately put into words. Her portrayal of Catherine the Great in her transformation from an innocent, naive German princess to the supremely powerful and sexually manipulative empress of Russia is most likely her best performance, and the way Sternberg presents her on the screen made me want nothing less but to worship her like a goddess. That is the power this film has, and I'm sure that I will see more and more in it the more I watch it. In the meantime, believe what has been said over the many years since The Scarlet Empress was released, and then watch it and feel your eyes all but fall out of their sockets when you give yourself over to this twisted masterpiece that somehow got released by the assembly line Hollywood system of the golden age era of the 1930s, right at the dawn of the Hays Code. "There is no emperor ... only an empress."

After this film, Sternberg and Dietrich had one more collaboration in them before they parted ways for good. I'll have that one up next just as soon as I get around to it.

(Rating: 10/10)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

#414: The Blue Angel

1930, TSPDT Rank #268

The second film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

By this point in Josef von Sternberg's career, his films could no longer be ignored by the wider general public - at least not as long as they featured overnight sex symbol sensation (and the object of Sternberg's obsession) Marlene Dietrich. And while The Blue Angel is by no means a masterpiece, it does have the distinction of being Germany's first sound picture, and Germany should be very proud to have a film as great as this as its first talkie. It's much better in almost all ways than any of the very early American talkies, but the whole production is still quite rough, in particular the sound editing (clearly evident when all existing sound disappears instantaneously with any door closing), and Sternberg seems quite obviously uncomfortable having to operate with this new format. He may have also just been too concerned with shooting Dietrich (which he could always be trusted to do a good job with) to worry about other, less significant details. Either way, despite its flaws, which are to be expected given the circumstances it was made under, it is still a great film, and Emil Jannings is amazing as the professor who unwisely falls under the spell of a blonde (easily besting his work in his earlier silent film with Sternberg, The Last Command, which he won a statue for at the very first Academy Awards ceremony, and which I mentioned in the Docks of New York post), which may very well be one of the most tragic character portrayals I've seen in my years of witnessing cinematic history so far. The climactic scene is absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking at the same time, and the entire tone of the film is very bleak, but you could never have expected things to turn out all right for the old professor in any case. Whichever way you look at it, though, this is a milestone in cinematic history, and all things considered, it is a pretty great film. Plus, the musical numbers give both the talkie format its standard demo platform, and also allow the spotlight to shine on the young, stunningly sexy Marlene. There was nothing like the good old pre-Code days of the early '30s.....

More on Sternberg and Dietrich coming soon of course, as the marathon carries on (hopefully as quickly as possible).

(Rating: 8/10)