Judge Daryl Loomis may be big game aboard a ship, but on this website, he's only animal crackers.
Our reviews of Underworld (published January 6th, 2004), Underworld (Blu-Ray) (published September 27th, 2007), Underworld Trilogy (published May 22nd, 2009), Underworld Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published May 18th, 2009), Underworld / Underworld: Evolution (published January 23rd, 2009), and Underworld: Extended Cut (published December 3rd, 2004) are also available.
Miles of docks wait day and night for strange cargo—and stranger men.
Director Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) didn't have long to work in silent cinema before sound took over. Most of these films are considered lost today, but his early work that is available reveals a young man with a mastery of the form that few could match. The three presented here, in another gorgeous set from Criterion, are considerably different from one another, but are equally masterful in form and function.
Facts of the Case
The Last Command
The Docks of New York
I'm a big fan of Josef von Sternberg's early sound work. He introduced this country to Marlene Dietrich, after all. The Blue Angel and Shanghai Express are excellent films, but I'd never seen any of his silent work. Truly, I was missing out. After the first film, it didn't seem like the films could get better, but each of the three is stronger than the last. This is impressive work, each piece is great for different reasons.
It is often said that Underworld is the genesis of the gangster film, and that's hard to argue with. It has a hard-boiled exterior, a plucky gangster's moll, and a whole bunch of drinking and crime; it's all the things that made Cagney, Bogart, and a slew of others stars for two decades. It's my least favorite film of the three, but that's not this movie's fault. The original story from Ben Hecht won an Oscar in the first year of the awards, but Sternberg drastically changed the story, adding characters and depth. Reading the story (included in the set) it becomes apparent that not only does the Academy have poor judgment in story quality, but Sternberg had a talent for fixing stories. The performances are very good all around, with George Bancroft leading the way. He mixes the tough with the tender very well; equally believable feeding a starving kitten as shooting some chump in the face. The other roles aren't quite as strong, but Sternberg delivers plenty of style. If Underworld isn't the best silent you'll ever see, it's plenty of fun.
Sternberg gets a little more complicated with the next picture in the collection, The Last Command. Sternberg delivers both an effective film about the October Revolution and a sharp commentary on the workings of Hollywood, all from a story that the director didn't think was good enough to make into a film. The revolution centerpiece was from a story by director Ernst Lubitsch (I Don't Want to Be a Man) that Sternberg took over and padded the time with the film-within-a-film bookends. The results are fantastic. Beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, the framework for The Last Command is high concept, but never feels contrived. Much of the credit goes to the performances. Emil Jannings is at his blustery best, excellent as a tyrannical general turned pathetic old man. William Powell's idealistic Bolshevik turned tyrannical director contrasts perfectly with Jennings character. Evelyn Brent cinches it, though, as the object of both men's affection. Sternberg was known for his strong and beautiful female characters, and rarely has this been more apparent than with Natalie Dabrova. She doesn't have a direct role in the Hollywood story, but her ghost hovers over all Andreyev's motivations. The Last Command is a war film, a revenge story and a filmmaking commentary all at once. It's also one of the best examples of the formal brilliance of Sternberg.
Finally, the film I thought I would like the least was actually one of the best silents I've ever seen. Sternberg's storytelling is at its absolute peak in The Docks of New York. Given very little in the way plot, the director uses a steady rhythm to develop this character study of two stokers, a hard-luck dancehall girl, and the saloon where they drink away their lives. The performances are once again fantastic, with George Bancroft, the rare man brave enough to work for Sternberg twice, leading the way. As opposed to the hard-nosed Bull Weed, Bill Roberts is an plainly sympathetic character. His heroic act leads to unexpected love with Mae, and a door opens for both of them to change their lives for the better. Bancroft has a crackling chemistry with Betty Compson, who I fell in love with right about the same time as Bill did. Well crafted and well performed, The Docks of New York is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish and is my favorite in this collection.
It should come as no surprise to anybody when I declare that 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg is another brilliant set from Criterion. When we're talking about silent film on DVD, it's natural to expect wrecked transfers, rife with damage and missing frames. It comes with the territory of films almost ninety years old, but the films here look amazing. Each is presented in full frame, with slight window boxing, and while they're not perfect, these are some of the best silent transfers I've seen in some time. Underworld is the best of the group, with the other two coming in only a little bit behind. All three have a certain amount of scratching and grain, but they are surprisingly clear given the circumstances. The contrast is very strong and black levels are deep; there's really nothing to complain about in any of the three transfers.
The sound on each is fine, but the recordings are all new and I expect no less. Two musical scores accompany each disc. All three have a score by Robert Ismael, who is a consistent composer of silent film scores, but whose style grates on me. He scores directly to the onscreen action, adding bell noises when someone rings a bell or hinge sounds when someone opens a door. I find that it is intrusive and adds a level of irony to the films that doesn't belong. The secondary scores for Underworld and The Last Command come from the Alloy Orchestra, who have scored silent films for some time. Their method is more conventional, featuring strong orchestral music, but adding little to the action. The only one of the six that I particularly care for is the score for The Docks of New York by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton, who use arrangements of popular songs from the period to get the point across. It relies some on vocals, which is certainly not the standard fare, and I appreciate what they created. It adds an emotional level to the film that the other scores don't.
Criterion hasn't included a lot of extras in this set, but what they have is excellent. The discs for Underworld and The Last Command feature visual essays by Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher, respectively. Each spends about forty minutes looking at Sternberg's life and career around the time of each film, providing detailed back stories and anecdotes. The Docks of New York features an hour long interview with the director, and is more biographical and general, but no less interesting than the others. Criterion's customary accompanying book goes overboard this time with four original essays about each individual film and the scores, the story for Underworld by Ben Hecht, and an excerpt on Emil Jannings from Sternberg's autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. This is a fantastic collection that values quality over quantity.
If you're a fan of silent films, what are you waiting for? These films have been essentially unavailable for decades and represent some of the best work of the form from a young man who would go on to do much more in the sound era.
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Scales of Justice, The Docks Of New York
Perp Profile, The Docks Of New York
Distinguishing Marks, The Docks Of New York
Scales of Justice, Underworld
Perp Profile, Underworld
Distinguishing Marks, Underworld
• Visual Essay
Scales of Justice, The Last Command
Perp Profile, The Last Command
Distinguishing Marks, The Last Command
• Visual Essay
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