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Category Archives: Josef von Sternberg

Macao

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If there were such a term as noir-lite then Macao (1952) would have to feature as a prominent example. Taking its lead from the likes of The Big Steal and, more especially, His Kind of Woman, the movie uses some standard characters and situations but drops the harder-edged cynicism and fatalism that one normally expects to find. As a result, we wind up getting a moderately entertaining picture that passes the time but never delivers the kind of sickening gut punch a film noir ought to. The chaotic nature of the production probably contributed significantly to the less than satisfactory final product. However, there are casting issues involved too, but more on that later.

Exotic settings have long been a favourite of Hollywood movies, and the Orient has a special flavour and mystique of its own. Macao, the Portuguese colony, had the kind of murky reputation that suits the world of noir down to the ground. The story revolves around the arrival of three strangers – Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), Julie Benson (Jane Russell) and Lawrence C Trumble (William Bendix) – in this corrupt and largely lawless locale. What’s not clear is the reason for these individuals turning up; Julie says she’s looking for a job as a singer, Trumble says he’s a salesman, and Cochran says he’s just hoping to turn a buck whatever way he can. Regardless of what they say, it’s soon apparent that one or more of this ill-matched trio is out to bring down local underworld and gambling kingpin Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter). He’s wanted by Interpol but can’t be touched as long as he remains within Macao’s three mile limit; so a plot involving stolen diamonds is cooked up to appeal to his avaricious nature and lure him far enough out for the authorities to nab him. At the heart of the story is the dynamic between Cochran and Julie – he helps her out of a tight spot and she repays him by lifting his wallet, he gets threatened with deportation and she bails him out, and so on. This cagey romance runs parallel to the business with Halloran, and it seems at times like there are two different movies fighting for dominance. In the end it’s the lighter elements that prevail and the more sinister aspects are only dealt with during the climax. Generally, it’s a schizophrenic kind of picture that fails to deliver adequately through its lack of decisiveness. There are a number of effective scenes that, taken individually, prove satisfying either for their smart-ass comedic dialogue or their tense stylishness. However, they sit uncomfortably side by side and the shift of emphasis is a clumsy affair.

Robert Mitchum, unsure of which way to turn in Macao.

It’s rarely good news when a film experiences a change of director during production, and the further along it is when the switch takes place the greater the damage is likely to be. Josef von Sternberg had already shot a significant amount of the script when on set disagreements led to his departure and replacement by Nicholas Ray. The credits show von Sternberg as the director but it’s hard to be sure how much of the finished movie is down to him; Cochran’s escape from Halloran’s clutches and subsequent pursuit through the docks at night do seem to carry his stamp though. That’s easily the most visually impressive sequence in the whole movie, as Cochran stumbles and slips through a set draped with trawler nets that resemble some massive spider web that’s been spun across the waterfront to ensnare him. Additionally, the scenes in Halloran’s gambling house hark back to von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture, but never achieve anything like the intoxicating decadence of the earlier film. On top of all the other turmoil, the script was undergoing constant revision and being written on the fly, with Mitchum apparently contributing. Mitchum and Russell were essentially playing to type and their chemistry is a large part of what ensures Macao remains watchable. I enjoy seeing William Bendix in anything but he overdoes the mugging in this one and his part suffers as a result. A bigger problem with the casting though concerns Brad Dexter and Gloria Grahame: Dexter is simply too wooden and passive to convince as the threatening figure he’s supposed to be, and Grahame is criminally wasted in an underwritten role that she reportedly didn’t want to play in the first place.

The R1 DVD of Macao from Warners is a good one that is sharp and has strong contrast in the crucial night scenes. If the film itself is a weak one then the disc extras go some way towards making up for that. There’s a nice commentary track with Eddie Muller, Jane Russell and Stanley Rubin. Also, we get a half hour of TCM Private Screenings with Russell and a very ill Mitchum chatting to Robert Osborne. I couldn’t recommend the movie to anyone just getting into film noir as it’s too watered down to be in any way representative. While it’s passably entertaining, it’s realistically more likely to appeal to Mitchum/Russell/von Sternberg (delete as appropriate) completists.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Josef von Sternberg, Robert Mitchum

 

Shanghai Express

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 You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.

Style over substance, that’s a term that’s often levelled at some movies as a form of criticism; however, it doesn’t always have to be taken as such. On occasion, the humdrum, the trite and the unoriginal can be elevated by the presence of stylised techniques and images. Shanghai Express (1932) is a film where this is certainly the case – the story is pure, overblown melodrama but, in the hands of Josef von Sternberg, it manages to transcend the limitations of its plot and approach art.

Events take place during the Chinese Civil War, with a rag-tag assortment of characters boarding the titular train. The main topic of conversation is the presence of a notorious prostitute called Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) who has been involved in a series of scandals up and down the Chinese coast. The reactions tend to vary from the outraged disapproval of a missionary to the more pragmatic acceptance by an American gambler and a disgraced French soldier. All the passengers know Shanghai Lily only by reputation, all but one that is. Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) is a British army surgeon travelling to Shanghai to perform an operation on a high ranking government official. Harvey and the woman were once lovers until an indiscretion on her part drove a wedge between them. From then on she embarked on a series of affairs and liaisons that earned her that colourful name. The rub is that these two people are still in love, but their pride and past histories prevent them from bridging the gap of mistrust that has grown up between them. The simmering sexual tensions are brought to a head when one of the passengers, a Eurasian by the name of Chang (Warner Oland), reveals himself as a Maoist rebel and hijacks the train. Chang’s aim is simply to hold the passengers, Harvey in particular, hostage until the government agrees to release one of his close lieutenants. In the end, it comes down to whether or not Shanghai Lily will sacrifice her new found honour to save the man she loves – and whether or not he will understand her motives. As I said, this is melodrama of the ripest and tawdriest variety. The whole thing works, and works very well, due to von Sternberg’s skill in evoking an atmosphere of decadence and exoticism that is dreamlike in its allure. The train itself is one of those inter-war extravagances that contrasts with the ramshackle station where the hostages are held. There are a number of notable sequences, but the one that made the greatest impression on me was the night-time assault on the train by Chang’s rebels. Bathed in expressionistic shadows and hissing steam, the rebels swarm over the stalled locomotive and dispose of the government troops. Those not killed immediately are rounded up and, as a heavy machine gun filmed in silhouette chatters into life, butchered on the platform. The camera angles and movements in this scene, and throughout the whole movie, are much more inventive and fluid than one normally expects in early sound pictures. 

Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily.

While von Sternberg clearly revelled in the theatrical oriental atmosphere, more than anything the film was an ode to Dietrich. It’s the way that Von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes lit and shot Dietrich that gives the film its power. He never misses an opportunity to zoom in on her, and Garmes’ setups are designed to accentuate that famous bone structure as the camera lingers. Her performance is nothing special in itself, but she oozes that languid, provocative sexuality that was her trademark. The dialogue that she (and all the cast members for that matter) is handed is delivered in a slow, deliberate, almost stilted fashion that actually works within the dreamy and unreal world that von Sternberg weaves. The role of Captain Harvey went to Clive Brook, and that damn near derails (sic) the whole show. He gives one of the most wooden and po-faced performances it’s been my misfortune to witness – although it could be argued, generously, that this actually serves to emphasise the priggishness of his character. Still and all, it’s hard to see how Dietrich’s character could possibly have carried a torch for this stuffed shirt for five years. The support cast led by Warner Oland and Anna May Wong are thankfully much better and help paper over the deficiencies of the leading man. Oland in particular does fine work as the charming but embittered Eurasian who compensates for his resentment of his mixed blood by indulging in torture and cruelty.   

Shanghai Express was released a couple of years back in a 6-disc Dietrich boxset in the UK, although it’s since been made available individually. Universal have presented the film well considering its age, there are speckles and such, and some moments of softness, but it generally looks very good. Detail is quite strong at times and contrast is always good, the latter being especially important for a movie like this. The disc itself is completely barebones, which is a little disappointing but at least it can be bought for next to nothing. For a pre-code film it does seem a little coy in not coming right out and stating exactly how Shanghai Lily earns her keep, but it doesn’t exactly hide the fact either. Although the story is not going to blow anyone away, the intoxicating atmosphere is a real visual treat. Also, considering the weakness of the leading man, it’s a testament to the abilities of Dietrich, Garmes and von Sternberg that the end product is so good. I give it a big thumbs up.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1930s, Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich

 

Crime and Punishment

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Dostoyevsky’s story has been filmed a number of times, but I have to confess I was not familiar with any of the versions until I viewed this 1935 film. It’s almost impossible to think of Josef von Sternberg without also thinking of Marlene Dietrich, so closely connected were their 30s careers in Hollywood. Crime and Punishment was only the second American picture von Sternberg made without his leading lady, and his best period was already behind him. This was a very low budget affair, made for Columbia, yet he still managed to turn out a film that remains visually interesting. Of course it didn’t hurt to have two up and coming talents involved, namely star Peter Lorre and cinematographer Lucien Ballard.

Basically, what we have is a tale of desperation. Raskolnikov (Lorre) is a brilliant young student of criminology, a man of great potential. Before long, however, we can see that this potential is not to be fulfilled. Both Raskolnikov and his family have fallen on hard times and he finds himself facing the threat of eviction. But Raskolnikov is a man of great pride, considering himself morally and intellectually superior to others. This pride, bordering on pomposity, is tested to the limit when he receives a visit from his mother and sister. The very real prospect of his sister allowing herself to be forced into a clearly unsuitable marriage purely out of financial necessity spurs him to act. A visit to a parasitic pawnbroker results in murder for profit, yet this great intellectual finds himself not much better off. Panicked into flight with only a fraction of the loot, his self-doubt and guilt quickly assail him. Having acted rashly due to desperation, he soon finds that a new variety of desperation awaits him. Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) is the ever-smiling, unctuous figure that appears on the scene, apparently grateful for any assistance the brilliant young student of crime can offer. The truth is the policeman is never really taken in, and it’s only a question of whether he can wheedle a confession out of Raskolnikov or whether the young man’s mounting guilt and paranoia will do the job for him.

Peter Lorre ponders his fate.

Peter Lorre was in his pomp when this film was made, riding high on a wave of critical success following Lang’s M and Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much. He had the kind of face that was ideal for expressing fear, despair, self-loathing, anger and swaggering confidence, and all in quick succession. You can almost taste the terror as he shrinks back into the shadows when he’s on the point of being discovered at the scene of the crime, his round features bathed in cold sweat. Conversely, there’s real arrogance to the way he later struts into Porfiry’s office, casually putting his feet on the furniture, while he taunts the policeman. Edward Arnold was the perfect foil here (Sydney Greenstreet would fulfill a similar function a few years later) for Lorre’s emotional grandstanding. His ebullient Porfiry is like a great, fat spider spinning a web around, and toying with Lorre’s bug-eyed and hopelessly trapped fly. The scenes between these two, as they indulge in an intellectual duel, are the best parts of the film. The budget was obviously tight as the whole movie is studio bound and the cast is minimal, but von Sternberg never lets it look cheap. There are plenty of expressionistic shadows and the limited sets are all well photographed by a very young Lucien Ballard.

Crime and Punishment is a pretty rare film, but it has been given a DVD release in R2 in continental Europe. I picked it up purely on a whim when I noticed it on the shelf for a low price, and I’m very happy I did. Sony have provided a spiffy looking transfer that has clearly been cleaned up and really does justice to a film that’s almost 75 years old. There are a plethora of subtitles and dubs available but no other extras. There were rumours of a Peter Lorre box in R1 from Sony, and judging from the handsome look of this title I’d expect it to turn up there sooner rather than later. I don’t think Crime and Punishment is one of the lost greats, but with the high class talent involved both in front of and behind the camera it’s a movie I’m very happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1930s, Josef von Sternberg, Peter Lorre

 
 
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