3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)
Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”). That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.
But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema. The three films in Criterion’s magnificent box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg may be all the evidence we have to this era (most of his silent films are lost and his directorial debut, the 1925 The Salvation Hunters, is unavailable on home video, though clips are included in the set supplements) but they are more than enough to show his mastery of the medium and the rapid evolution of his style, both a visual sculptor and as a cinematic storyteller. The “von” of his name (an affectation that didn’t originate with him but one he embraced who-heartedly) suggests an a European émigré and technically that’s accurate—he was born in Vienna and came the United State an early age—but Sternberg is an American, with European tastes perhaps but an American storytelling sensibility.
These films also showcase his often overlooked genius as a director of actors. While Sternberg fills the frame with light and shadow and layers of texture, he strips the performances down to the elemental base, their entire approach to life in their faces, their walk, the way they lean in for a comment or drop their eyes when they catch another’s gaze. In such carefully orchestrated performances, the smallest gestures, a lift of an eyebrow, a shift in body language communicates everything.
Underworld (1927), his third feature, has been called both the original gangster film and the proto-gangster film. And while it doesn’t look or play much like the films that blasted through the throes of the early sound era—Bull Weed (George Bancroft), the (anti-)hero of this piece, is no gangleader but a solo artist pulling heists with nothing but brazen confidence—this atmospheric classic certainly created some of the conventions and even images that were taken up in the sound era. Bull Weed staring up at the neon sign “The City Is Yours” and the gangland ball in the middle of the film, with thugs in tuxedos and streamers coating the floor, are echoed in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), which was also scripted by Ben Hecht (Sternberg rewrote Hecht’s story to the point that Hecht disavowed the script… until it won an Oscar). That’s where it really anticipates the classic gangster story: the underworld network of criminals, the attitude, and especially the cast of street thugs in society dress, appropriating the dress of the upper class while twisting the manners and mores into a warped reflection of high society.