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.



Shanghai Express (1932)
March 26, 2011, 6:24 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Josef von Sternberg

As Paramount’s answer to Garbo, Marlene Dietrich’s star rose quickly in the early 1930s through her six collaborations with the Austrian-born Josef von Sternberg. In Shanghai Express, Dietrich plays the memorably named Shanghai Lily, described to be a “woman who lives by her wits along the China cost”. Although notorious for bleeding men dry, curiously she travels alongside a fellow woman “coaster”, and in several scenes a romantic relationship seems to be implied (in fact, if you interpret the film as being one in which Lily serves merely as a manipulative lesbian, the ending possesses a dark bite that cooly demonstrates the submissiveness of men to powerful women). Most memorable about the film – which is a fairly ordinary train picture – is its lush cinematography. The great Lee Garmes is credited as the director of photography, however von Sternberg’s aesthetic was always distinctly his own, with an unique capacity to produce unearthly angelic close-ups. Lit by von Sternberg, Dietrich’s beauty is incomparable.