The Salvation Hunters
Critics mistook abstraction for naïveté. The Boy and the Girl are on a dredge in the harbor. This is the first scene of three, it is composed of “mud, water and sun”. Ceaselessly the dredge scoops out mud from the harbor bottom onto a barge, the shore crumbles ceaselessly into the harbor, they are listless and idle, there is no work.
Sternberg films the wrack on the waterline, two reflections of men bobbling like Fischinger until an empty bottle tossed down explodes radiantly on the surface and bobs upside down.
The dredge swings back and forth, down and up, mud and water spill from its jaws in the sunlight, the various views give a comprehensive angle here and there, the gentle motion of the dredge at anchor, ships and harbor buildings in the background. This is very much in the vein of Keaton’s The Navigator, and the massive dark movement of the dredge is a Keaton gag waiting to happen (it does, when the Brute is soaked). Sternberg’s given aim is “to photograph a thought”, this torpid seedbed is its incipit.
United Artists picked up The Salvation Hunters on the advice of Chaplin and Fairbanks or Pickford, Griffith must have been aware that the jaws of the dredge appear in his Those Awful Hats, where they scoop off a lady’s giant hat in a movie theater, and then her protesting self (the patrons applaud).
Sternberg’s dredge is not so delicate an implement, however. It took off the Child’s parents, and he too dawdles there, until the Brute smacks him around. Timorously the Boy intervenes, having been called a coward by the Girl. The three take a rowboat to the city.
Already in the opening scene Sternberg is twenty-five and fifty years ahead of the cinema. But he is also a man of his time, completely so, and every part of his film has the contemporaneity of a De Sica with a tellingly accurate rendering of Los Angeles in 1925. The charge of amateurism leveled by Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times is amazing to recall, it brings to mind the worst sort of purblind response one associates with critics of painting. The Salvation Hunters can’t be mistaken at any moment for anything less than a great work of the cinema, and certainly not now, when Antonioni has absorbed it so plainly into L’Avventura, for example.
A plume of smoke rises from the city like the end of Citizen Kane. Poor children, beggars, the homeless on park benches. “Sometimes sun.” Through a slum where someone has written “Jesus Saves” on a boarded-up window, the weary three go, “ignorant of the treasure hidden within their souls!” Sternberg’s observation is urgent and finally is remembered by Chaplin at the end of The Great Dictator, here he anticipates Nabokov on Kafka.
A pimp befriends them, promises one at least a job. His kimono-robed whore prepares a tray, he withholds it the better to persuade them—the better to induce a thought.
The Boy tries to get work. In their dark and dingy room, the Boy, the Girl and the Child share a piece of gum. The Boy is a dullard and a coward, his one spark of life (Sternberg explains) is the belief in better times. He daydreams a mansion and car with soldiers-in-waiting (Murnau’s doorman multiplied). The Gentleman visits the establishment, asks if the Boy and Girl are not together (she doesn’t care what he thinks), offers money and leaves it with the Child, who buys food for them.
This charity balks the Man, he plans a trip to the country, where the Girl might respond favorably. All drive there in his open car, to a field of flowers above the road. “Romantic nature, glorified here and there with real estate signs.”
“Here Your Dreams Come True”, says the sign. Boy, Girl, Child, pimp, whore, all sit under or in the trees (the Child does), thinking. Sternberg has achieved this with much labor and preparation, a sequence of shots, the actors’ performances have led authentically here, each of the five is portrayed in the common everyday activity of thinking, when the mind runs on whatever its business of the moment may be, nothing in particular, anything. “Dreams,” says the title card.
The Woman reads the Boy’s palm, the Man takes the Girl aside to talk. The Child is bothersome, the Man smacks him about. The Boy defends him, the fight runs the length of the sloping field down to the road. Behind the sign, the Boy pummels the Man, then picks him up and tosses him down onto the back seat of the car. The Woman strolls up lazily and looks down at her unconscious pimp, the three cheerfully walk along the country road, “Children of the Sun!” Their faith has made them free, says Sternberg.
Here, you would think, the advantage is to the critics, who nonetheless could not fail to miss the point.
Sternberg like John Osborne prizes activity, energy, “enthusiasm” as the next best thing to diligence in torpor, and better, even, sometimes, as Schoenberg points out. His first film modestly acknowledges Browning’s “infinitesimal” initiative and proves the point by springing full-grown from his jovial brow.
His command of actors, like his versatility with pictures, has never been bettered (Georgia Hale is a great actress and resembles the Prentiss sisters, but all the cast are equally good) . A few refinements make up the history of cinema, they are nearly all here. Rembrandt’s etchings are as self-sufficient.
Frederick Wiseman’s Ballet shows that dancers work all day every day, on certain nights the public is invited. Directors sometimes find themselves observed by none but their colleagues, who are anyway the best critics.
A film of strange, terrible surreality, no doubt best explained by Lean’s Great Expectations, other ways of looking at it seem unsatisfactory, somehow.
Its fame rests on various angles, it looks like the source of TV’s The Untouchables, and is just the sort of extraordinary tale you find there, from life.
Fellini in La strada takes a more philosophical, retrospective outlook in a way, Sternberg wants the truth to be known, and then the criminal has to go, satisfied with his answer, still more is the resolution of the plot, for which there is Lean.
The bravura crook thinks Attila the Hun must be a wop rival, Rolls Royce loves his girl Feathers, Mulligan tries to rape her and dies for it.
Feathers and Rolls have a way out if the crook hangs, they try to save him. If he isn’t betrayed, if they love each other, the Law is observed.
“‘Do you get that’ cried Belacqua ‘you old dirt, do you? Not Beatrice and me in bed in the brothel!’”
The Last Command
It’s given from headquarters, countermanding the general staff so as to spare the Czar’s troops.
It’s given in a Hollywood studio ten years later, to charge the enemy for Russia.
Grand Duke Sergius sees the republican revolution go to smash, his last residence is a Los Angeles boarding house.
A revolutionist he imprisoned is now the film director Andreyev, in need of extras for a battle scene. Another was the Grand Duke’s mistress, an actress who saved his life.
A film much admired and marveled at by critics, and closely related not only to Der blaue Engel but still more to Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim.
The Docks of New York
From The Sandbar to The Harbor on a single night in port.
Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine and an anonymous reviewer in the New York Times complained of this, not TIME.
Their praises cover every aspect of the film save the remarkable ending much imitated and rightly so, and Sternberg’s great appreciation of modulated tempo, as when the wharf throng at the bar make a shivaree and Hymn-Book Harry surveys the scene, a serious man.
Variety demurred, missing Compson’s superb New Yorker, but not Bancroft as the stoker whose yammering buddy steals him away to the freighter bound elsewhere.
Der blaue Engel
The miracle of the screenplay is to put before the footlights the enemy of artists, not a critic but an academic, who for all his education sees them as aberrations to be measured for the contrast with a well-ordered academic life. This is scaled down to humorous effect as a gymnasium instructor turned cabaret artiste, the act reveals the model to be Petrushka.
So many are the films, such as Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac and Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, that account for the material in various ways, a perfect criticism has been given of Sternberg’s genius in devising a lucid cinematic form exactly comparable to a skilled juggler with four or five things kept alive in vivid counterpoint at once, youth and age, grove and stage, city and commerce, with an intense veracity, an excellent composite of scenes each complete in itself, and a truly notable soundtrack rendering The Blue Angel nightspot with its noises and shouts of encouragement.
Films are pictures that move, the sense of rhythm is like proportion in architecture, on the static picture plane the elements of composition weave and move more artfully than almost anywhere else, the whole conception is so vast that small increments loom large, every detail is telling.
The professor returns to his desk at last, clutching it like “a mollusk that has found its rock” (If....).
A “vaudeville actress” pursued by a wealthy painter loves a private in the Foreign Legion loved by the adjutant’s wife.
The assault by two Arabs goes another way than Visconti’s Lo straniero, the adjutant tries to exact revenge.
Variety was not impressed, but Mordaunt Hall was made to gibber his disapprobation in the New York Times.
The nightclub conductor is Ken Russell in Dance of the Seven Veils, the last scene contributes to Fernandez’ Enamorada.
The authenticity of the filming is unparalleled except by Sternberg, it heightens the several elements of the story in a deadpan constellation of perfect realism.
“X-27, might have been the greatest spy in history,” a lesson given by Garmes and Sternberg to Watkin and Richardson (Mademoiselle).
“Austria may not care what happens to you, but you certainly do care what happens to Austria,” says the pianola man, cp. Carve Her Name with Pride (dir. Lewis Gilbert). Samuel Fuller and Otto Preminger are excellent students, too. Herbert Wilcox...
The sound of her rump on the keys of a piano à queue, carefully prepared.
The two sides of a coin, traitor and contact (cp. The Quiller Memorandum, dir. Michael Anderson). “Would you mind putting your hand on my other shoulder?”
Two-thirds of the way in, Jet Pilot. The musical theme naturally recalls Stravinsky caught flat by a sharp border guard with Picasso’s drawings of the enemy, sc. the composer, it goes very neatly into Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, a very rare tribute (cp. Let George Do It!, dir. Marcel Varnel).
“H-14 of the Russian Secret Service.” Cp. L’Aigle à deux têtes (dir. Jean Cocteau).
Godard’s Ten Best American Sound Films (with Hawks, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Ford, Kelly-Donen, Welles, Ray, Preminger, and Lubitsch).
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times could not follow it quite but found “a highly satisfactory entertainment.” Variety, “Dietrich rises above her director” (McLaglen again is disprized). Leonard Maltin, “alluring Dietrich makes the most of a creaky script”. Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader), “an awesome, glacial beauty.” Time Out, “absurd”. TV Guide, “an offbeat gem.” Hal Erickson (Rovi), “a surprise.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “gloomy melodrama”, citing Pare Lorentz in error and John Gillett in praise.
An American Tragedy
The intensely funny perspective on a horrible crime is countered with a general idea of unformed youth, the murderer has no more sense than a boy and is last seen awaiting execution, consoled by his mother.
Everything is refined down to this level of really acute observation, the victim is sweet but firm-set, the debutante has breeding but still is naive, all the characters are seen in this way, quite accurately.
Critics were given some pause by Sternberg’s method, which is to say they have been slow in getting the point. The film is so lifelike that the difficulty might be understood as a deliberate lack of drama, precisely what Richard Brooks obtained with In Cold Blood.
Sternberg has a murderer so vacillating and spineless his own attorneys practically give him up on the witness stand as the heavy machinery of a criminal trial thunders about him, political opponents of the district attorney, a newspaper sub-headline calls them.
The screenplay is evidently worked out from “Boule de suif” to give the maximum expression to a theme sharply indited and left there without remedy. The entire problem in Huston’s Under the Volcano stems from this by negation.
Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen is yet another view, Ford’s 7 Women proceeds directly from Sternberg. Rain or Miss Sadie Thompson gets parodied very effectively. The performances were thought little of by Variety, though the New York Times held a considerably higher opinion.
Sternberg’s engrossing métier turns Paramount into China, it’s less a question of showing off the set design than of photographing it ably.
A unique satire, a two-sided coin or mirror arrangement.
The wife returns to the stage in the ultimate sendup of “monkey nuts”, and retires again almost at once as the mistress of “a politician, loads o’ jack, runs this end o’ town.”
She does this to save her husband, a chemist who is dying of radium poisoning and needs treatment in Germany.
The great crisis precipitated by his return propels her onto the road with their young son and into destitution. She relinquishes the child and becomes a Paris star. The politico sees her show.
Reviews were bad, critics have always regarded this as a Sternberg failure, nearly all.
No director can touch it for authenticity and brilliance, and none would have dared.
Maté nevertheless gives a very good analysis of the material in D.O.A.
the scarlet empress
« La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas. »
The Devil Is a Woman
The intense stylization springs from the stage of The Blue Angel into the studios of Paramount. The title is an equivoque attributed to Lubitsch, “a woman is the devil” would be its standard cognate, but the significance is Biblical, that is to say religious, by way of a metaphor.
The inflictions of the lady in question on her Spanish army captain, a man of wealth and position, place him finally where he has “the most difficult of all acquirements” (Baudelaire), humility before the object of devotion. The infliction ceases, she packs off her revolutionary lover to Paris.
Andre Sennwald of the New York Times recognized the genius of the picture, while Variety strangely found it “monotonous”. Sternberg’s comic scenes are extremely fast and double (the mayor and his deputy, Concha and the Spanish dancer), this is a trick of style easily missed.
It scarcely seems possible to make a film more brilliant than Der blaue Engel, but here it is announcing Russell’s The Boy Friend and Buñuel’s Cet obscur objet du désir, on a basis of Mérimée’s or Bizet’s Carmen, after all.
Crime and Punishment
An extremely rigorous account, cognate with the German dilemma but set in contemporary Russia.
The luminous photography has been taken for granted in reviews that nevertheless dismiss the film, but Renoir and Lang and Bresson are on equal terms with it.
After Tiberius, Caligula, but then... a poem of Rome, the Republic restored “and resurrection is never easy” (The Epic That Never Was, dir. Bill Duncalf).
A monumental production visible as a torso, with rushes (cp. Something’s Got to Give, dir. George Cukor). “I hear that you’re teaching your pigs to read, is that true?”
“So as to have readers for all the Roman histories you write.” A near stylistic resemblance to the scarlet empress is notable. Laughton persevered in the role as Quasimodo and Gracchus. “The people will not complain at having to pay for the privilege of being ruled by so profound a thinker as the illustrious Caligula.” The appointment of Incitatus to the Senate.
Production by Alexander Korda, screenplay from various hands (Lajos Biro, Robert Graves et al.), cinematography Georges Perinal, costume designs by the director and John Armstrong, sets Vincent Korda.
Roger Greenspun of the New York Times, “whether this would have been one of von Sternberg’s great movies, I simply don’t know.” Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader), “might have been his masterpiece.”
“A cop’s job is to bring criminals to justice, not to the morgue.” Two views of New York’s finest, cp. Hitler’s Children (dir. Edward Dmytryk) on theories of education.
The Irish cop of the title and his son, a seeker after promotion. “Finest what. Finest mob o’ chumps that ever fell for a flash line o’ sob stuff. Duty, loyalty, faithful unto death, for what?” Magnum Force (dir. Ted Post), a corrective to Siegel’s Dirty Harry, is more of the same. “All men who want war should be wiped from the face of the earth.”
“Madden, there are things in this world that men don’t get medals for, and don’t want them.”
Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times, “an expertly hokumed cops and robbers melodrama”. Tom Milne (Time Out), “one of MGM’s insufferably smug family entertainments.” Leonard Maltin, “director von Sternberg out of his element with standard Beery vehicle”. TV Guide, “long, drawn-out tale”. Sandra Brennan (All Movie Guide), “interesting drama.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “quite untypical of its director,” citing Variety, “strong support in the key duals.”
The Shanghai Gesture
Nothing remains of the Japanese foray into China, and Sternberg was able to say so even then with perfect calm, in 1941, adding to begin with that his film has nothing to do with the Japanese foray into China.
A primer of small-town America almost as bait for the despising of Axis propagandists, here is the “degenerate democracy” in one reel, heterogeneous, united, diligent and playful. The view is Capra’s or any civic functionary’s, in the know about where things stand.
The striking suite of images at the start gives a range of architecture from various sources, a range of Americans likewise follows suit, among them elected officials in town hall and municipal court, with the various creeds and pastimes of a particular town (Madison, Indiana) to be found anywhere (with regional variations) in the U.S.A.
When you sign Sternberg to direct Macao, you get Macao and no mistake. The same visual hilarity that makes up the dredge scenes in The Salvation Hunters is accelerated darkly in the opening sequence of flight and pursuit along the docks, Sternberg’s location footage is separately used to confirm the impression, intermittently as background plates to meld the image. His Macao at RKO is Macao, and that is mainly the point. The rest of his vaudeville brilliantly resides in the treatment of Jane Russell and Gloria Grahame, and that is the inexhaustible fusion of erotic apperception and dramatic attunement.
Right between these backgrounds and foregrounds the documentation of the script is filtered, it comes out as a remarkable bank shot from Huston’s Key Largo and other films, with great consequences for Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum.
The initial inspiration must have been a Jet Age version of Ninotchka. Jules Furthman’s screenplay accomplishes this so effectively that the thing comes and goes with utmost rapidity, and has escaped cognition for half a century, even by Truffaut.
The firm basis of the satire, closely akin to if not identical with Buñuel’s Viridiana, is stated by Col. Shannon as the Russian view of American freedom, that it “cooks the calf in the mother’s milk”, and this is developed in Siberia as the “parasite jet” deployed from a bomber. The Americans have abandoned the project, Shannon lightly drugged is set to assisting on a Soviet test run of the jet, which is meant to hook up to the bomber again in flight.
All this is prepared and expedited by the lapsed night interception procedure, in which Anna/Olga (the double identity reappears in That Obscure Object of Desire) raises alarm by “coinciding” with the exercise target, a B-36 or “mother ship”, hailed by Shannon as “Mama” (he is “Baby”).
The repartee is exceedingly swift and concentrated, Maj. Rexford brings the defector a hot meal and reports on the fighter she has brought in low on fuel, “the bottom of her tank was still damp.” Col. Shannon replies, “take your finger outta that soup, Major,” and Rexford complies.
At a ladies’ boutique in Palm Springs, bathing suits and other garments are on display. “We both believe in uplifting the masses,” says Shannon to the Russian lady lieutenant, adding, “there are some who don’t require it.”
“In other words,” she later says, “I’m attractive to you in every way except politically.”
The grandeur of Janet Leigh’s performance on the restaurant terrace has just noticeably been noticed, otherwise Maj. Rexford’s admonition applies. “You don’t know what’s behind it all? Then mind your own business.”
The weather report is “broken clouds and a full moon.” Sternberg is plainly attuned to the very original beauty of jets and jet airfields, the clouds among which they soar, the intricacies of Leigh and also in a different sense those of John Wayne, the military characterizations, and throughout the initial satirical inspiration.
The spacious Palm Springs suite put to crowded use by the Russian comes from The Divorce of Lady X and figures in Doctor Zhivago. There is a great deal of poetry in the script, as well as humor. “I haven’t sufficient flow of speech,” says Shannon, but enough to ask the boutique proprietor about the price of a gown “in gold and heliotrope.” Anna is Olga, one of the Soviets’ best agents, “she drove British Intelligence nuts.” Maj. Rexford knows all is well between them by “the light in the lady’s eyes, the light that was never seen on land or sea.”
“We only let you people steal our defective stuff,” says Shannon about to fly the parasite fighter. “I know,” says Olga/Anna with him in Siberia, “that’s why I’m worried about you.”
The drug is an improved version of the one used on Cardinal Mindszenty, “you forget you’ve forgotten,” nevertheless, Shannon proves the undoing of Col. Sokolov. Mrs. Shannon asks the new base commander, “how are things in Berlin?” Hans Conried in the role answers drily, “the Americans are still there.”
A late masterpiece young eyes gawked at, like John Ford’s. The seven-year silence before its release is a mystery explained by Godard. “Chaplin said that tragedy is life in close-up, and comedy, life in long shot. Sternberg’s Jet Pilot is a close-up comedy. This is why it didn’t go down well.”
The Saga of Anatahan
A true account of Japanese forces on a small Pacific island years after the war.
Much of the narrative is imagined or deduced, how those ghosts came to appear on a runway at home.
Every aspect of the film has been criticized and wondered at. The specially-built sets on Kyoto do all that could be asked, also the Japanese cast and crew.
A P-38 sinks their boat, fishermen pressed into supply service, above the Mariana Trench, out of which rises Anatahan, where a man and a woman live.
Months pass, the troops come home, years pass, the men fight over the woman, some die.
A masterpiece of dramatic suspense and understanding, with a narrator among the sailors speaking for them all indeterminately but to great effect.