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Marlene Dietrich

Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

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Boys at Work: ‘They Drive by Night’ and ‘Manpower’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

They Drive by Night and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.

They Drive by Night is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel Long Haul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown [1935], seems to have been the source for this section.)

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Blu-ray: ‘The Blue Angel’

The Blue Angel (Kino) – American director Josef von Sternberg went to Germany to direct Emil Jannings in his transition from silent to sound cinema and returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

It’s a perfect pairing in this case: the repressed petty provincial schoolteacher Rath, so obsessed by appearance and authority, and the happy-go-lucky showgirl Lola-Lola more concerned with his pleasure and freedom. With such a strong tale (adapted from Heinrich Mann’s novel “Professor Unrat”) behind Sternberg’s layered visual style, it becomes his most dramatically driven sound film, and his most tragic. (The story of a man’s ego destroyed by his social descent also echoes an earlier Jannings classic: F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh.) The luscious spray of nets and scrims and artful clutter is on gorgeous display in the nightclub scenes, which are simultaneously cheap and exotic, tawdry, and enticing: A marvelous, messy contrast to the neat regimentation of Rath’s everyday life.

The UFA/Paramount co-production was shot simultaneously in German and English versions, but the English version (shot for the American market) is shorter and clumsier, with the two stars performing in a language that they are clearly not fluent in. Kino’s earlier DVD release features both versions but the Blu-ray includes only the longer, original German-language, newly restored from archival 35mm film elements by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, with optional English subtitles. It does not port over any of the supplements from the previous DVD release.

Götterdämmerung in Technicolor: Fritz Lang’s ‘Rancho Notorious’

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

O listen … listen well:
Listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,
Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the song of the gambler’s wheel,
A souvenir of a bygone year,
Spinning a tale of the old frontier
And a man of steel,
And the passion that drove him on, and on, and on.

It began, they say, one summer’s day
When the sun was blazing down;
‘Twas back in the early Seventies
In a little Wyoming town.
So, listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the Wheel of Fate
As round and round with a whispering sound
It spins, it spins
The old, old story of
Hate, Murder and Revenge!

Any movie that gets underway with a song like that is going to be a little strange. And Rancho Notorious is strange. Peculiar. Outrageous. Utterly distinctive. I can only sympathize with any Western fan who dropped into his local grindhouse some night in 1952 for an hour-and-a-half of vicarious gunplay and eye-soothing scenery. Although it includes a goodly amount of shooting, a jailbreak, a bank holdup, a vicious fistfight and some token (very second-unit–style) hard riding, Rancho Notorious offers little in the way of genre compensations. Its theme ballad foregoes the customary easy jogging rhythms of most Western music for a tortuous, neurotic progression all its own; the mode is epic, but closer to Brechtian Epic than big-country epic. Indeed, the song bids to be exemplary: we are advised to “listen, listen well.” The didactic note is consistent with the previous work of a director who has specialized in putting his protagonists through hellish learning experiences (a character in one film speaks of having watched himself burn to death a dozen times over in a newsreel of his “lynching”; another Lang film consists mostly of a dream wherein the protagonist witnesses himself succumbing to what seems a single harmless temptation, then being lost in a morass of guilty complications that serve to confirm his waking self in straightlaced morality). And the film is exotically personal. It is drolly, thrillingly right that the last four words of the chorus should coincide with the credit title DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG: Rancho Notorious is a Teutonic revenge drama that partakes of the conventions and uses of the American Western—gunmen on horseback settling disputes against mythic backgrounds—without ever leaving the Fritz Lang universe. Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Hagen Tronje would feel right at home at Chuck-a-Luck.

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SFSFF 2011: Divas – “Il Fuoco” and “The Woman Men Yearn For”

Pina Menichelli is the very ideal of the diva in Il Fuoco (Italy, 1915). Introduced only as an illustrious poetess and countess, she steps out of her chauffeured car in a feathered outfit and hat that makes her look like a bird of prey. And she acts that way too when she meets the young artist Mario (Febo Mari), “the unknown painter.” She is inflamed by the power of his commitment and the beauty of his art but love is a very different kind of thing for her, a momentary conflagration of great excitement and heat that quickly burns out. And fire is the appropriate metaphor for a woman whose seduction includes smashing an oil lamp onto a table just to watch the flames burn.

Pina Menichelli

Menichelli, whose contorted poses and curled smiles give her the look of a female Nosferatu in Milan couture, makes Theda Bara look like a pretender. This countess treats seduction like a competition to be won but she really does feed on the physical charge of the affair. She simply burns out so quickly that she has nothing left for her abandoned lover, who here is pretty much a mama’s boy whose first step away from maternal protection leaves him crushed, broken.

It’s directed by Giovanni Pastrone, whose Cabiria (1914) is one of the landmarks of Italian epic spectacle. He brings the scale down for this film and takes his camera in closer for the more intimate story. The images and costumes are lavish and the performances tend to the operatic, larger than life in every respect, but he stages these scenes to express the internal drama rather than the external spectacle and in one scene offers a rare and subtly striking truck in from a medium long shot to medium close-up of the two lovers, all the more dynamic in a 1916 film that otherwise resorts to cutting and the occasional pan to reframe.

And a note on the accompaniment with Stephen Horne on piano, flute and chimes and Jill Tracy (a local SF singer) doing wordless cooing and moaning. It’s like an Ennio Morricone score for a giallo: erotic, threatening, haunting, the siren call of a sexual predator who devours and abandons her prey. A perfect evocation of the drama playing out onscreen.

***

It’s actually a misnomer to call Marlene Dietrich a “diva,” as her performance is as un-diva-like as you can get. Dietrich maintains the focus by remaining still amidst the activity. Even in a film as measured and conducted as The Woman Men Yearn For (Germany, 1929), she gives a performance defined by the smallest gesture and the most subtle of shifts in gaze and expression: a slight drop of the eyes, a tiny parting of the lips, the body dropping with a sigh.

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Touch of Evil

This program note was written in connection with the November 16, 1971 showing of Touch of Evil in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Autumn Quarter Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” Since that was a long time ago and the only version of the movie available at the time was the 93-minute Universal cut, I’ve let the piece stand. Touch of Evil was the seventh installment in the series, and the note was written to be read by people who’d been watching Welles pictures and reading comparable notes on them for the previous six weeks. –RTJ

Van Stratten: “Where’s Sophie?”
Trebitsch: “Where is anybody?”
—Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin

After his unhappy experiences with Macbeth in 1947–48, Welles spent the next eight years in Europe, managing to complete two features of his own, act both leading and supporting roles for other directors, and begin work on the still-uncompleted Don Quixote. In 1956 he returned to the States and, among other things, was sought by trash specialist Albert Zugsmith for a role in a police melodrama he was producing. Charlton Heston, set to star in the picture, heard about Welles’s involvement and strongly hinted to Zugsmith that Welles ought to be given directorial control as well. (Some accounts have it that Heston demanded Welles for the director, or else; others, that Heston was leery of appearing in what seemed a B-movie property but changed his tune when Welles entered the picture, saying, “I’d act in anything directed by Orson Welles!”) As it turned out, Welles got to rewrite the film entirely and direct it as well. He took his time cutting the picture and at the last left final cutting to the studio. Although Welles has muttered subsequently about how yet another of his films was ruined, he also claims never to have watched the final version. Russell Metty, cameraman on The Stranger, “confirms that Welles’s concept was followed to the letter,” according to Charles Higham. Higham further quotes Charlton Heston on the subject of some additional shooting supervised by Universal contract director Harry Keller: “The scenes Keller made were shot in less than half a day. Contrary to rumor, the footage does not replace any mysterious material shot by Orson, but is merely structural cement to clarify what the studio felt to be unnecessarily ambiguous sequences in Orson’s version of the film, explaining time and place and whatnot” (e.g., Mike and Susan’s discussion about her going to the motel). The studio evidently felt uneasy about the whole project. Touch of Evil (which Welles repudiates as a silly title) was leaked out rather than released; there was no press drumbeating, no preview screening, no anything. The film nosedived in this country but dazzled festival audiences internationally and won some prizes.

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Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

Marlene Dietrich in her first Hollywood role, with Adolphe Menjou

[Originally written for a University of Washington Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Sternberg and Dietrich”; reprinted in Movietone News No. 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

Watching Dietrich occupy cinematic space is one of the most intoxicating experiences that movies afford. Among my most vivid memories of The Blue Angel is Lola Lola’s amused, self- and other-appraising surprise as she watches Professor Rath defend her long-departed honor: sitting at her dressing table, high hat a-tilt, she inclines her head and torso along the left side of the frame and slowly draws her knee up into the right: her possession of the moment, her comprehension of its possibilities, is confirmed complete in one sensual adjustment of her position, itself as spontaneous as the act of thought, but defined in all its implication by the director’s framing and distance. Standing alongside the self-important café proprietor Lo Tinto in Morocco, Amy has only to knock out her collapsible top hat to comment upon his claim that his clientele is composed of the cream of society. Similarly, his prolix advice on how to size up likely sugar daddies among the audience is pronounced clearly superfluous by every syllable of body language emanating from the silent lady whose mind is already out there on that stage where she will simply … stand … and wait for a man she knows will be there to subdue the raucous house. If he were not there, to be sure, she could manage the trick herself (but, on some nonverbal level, Amy seems to know what she’s going to find that evening, and she and Legionnaire Brown go through their initial strides as though following a scenario they were singularly privileged to have read beforehand). This we can readily certify from the thorough raptness of the entire café as the tuxedoed Amy accepts a glass of champagne from the monsieur and claims a flower and a kiss from the young woman at his side: Sternberg’s mise-en-scène provides the delicate, completely dynamic visual context for Dietrich’s actions, and within that context Dietrich conducts her own forays into the emotional dangerousness of her personality.

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