For Reel

Thunderbolt (1929)
August 20, 2016, 12:00 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Josef von Sternberg
4 Stars
ThunderboltJosef von Sternberg’s first foray into sound is a hugely unique, asynchronous genre picture—while some have referred to Thunderbolt as a sound remake of Underworld, it couldn’t be any different in terms of its tone and the way it betrays certain classical forms. It can’t be said that von Sternberg used sound in new ways because it was all new, but he undeniably saw a potential in sound that his contemporaries overlooked. His soundtrack is crowded with noise, with voices coming and going as a means of conveying the moving through space. Strangely, it has the feel of wall-to-wall musical, with the death row setting accompanied by a chorus that sometimes has a maddening effect (the claustrophobia is enhanced by the fact that the music is literally inescapable). Moreover, von Sternberg used sound as an extension of his expressionism—watch, for example, the simple scene wherein George Bancroft squeaks a dog toy, first slowly and then with a rapidity that creates a high-pitch wheezing. It’s an absurd sound and even gesture given the context, but something about the toy’s death wails seems appropriate—a manifestation of the sense of terror that Bancroft rarely shows glimpses of. Thunderbolt‘s first half is almost indisputably great (including a knockout night club sequence), but the latter half poses a number of interesting challenges. Von Sternberg’s camera movements are removed almost entirely, the dialogue moves at a snail’s pace, and the suspense isn’t quite there because Thunderbolt’s change of heart seems inevitable more than a possibility. And yet it is at the same time strangely unforgettable, with its soundtrack alone earning its place among the most ambitious of the early sound films.

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