Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York
Vienna-born, New York-raised Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) directed some of the most influential and stylish dramas ever to come out of Hollywood. Though best known for his later star-making collaborations with actor Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg began his career during the final years of the silent era, dazzling audiences and critics with his films’ dark visions and innovative cinematography. The titles in this collection, made on the cusp of the sound age, are three of von Sternberg’s greatest works, gritty evocations of gangster life (Underworld), the Russian Revolution (The Last Command), and working-class desperation (The Docks of New York) rendered as shadowy movie spectacle.
Josef von Sternberg’s riveting breakthrough is widely considered the film that launched the American gangster genre as we know it. George Bancroft plays heavy Bull Weed, a criminal kingpin whose jealous devotion to his moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), gets him into hot water with a rival hood and, ultimately, the authorities. Further complicating matters is the attraction that blossoms between Feathers and an alcoholic former lawyer (Clive Brook). With its supple, endlessly expressive camera work and tightly wound screenplay based on a story by legendary scribe Ben Hecht (who won an Oscar for it the first year the awards were given), Underworld solidified von Sternberg’s place as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new talents.
After decades of gangster films, it’s remarkable to go back to one of the progenitors of the genre and see such a composed and effective piece. Underworld is a drama filled with motley flawed characters skirting danger that is ramped up after a love triangle threatens not just a burgeoning friendship, but the balance of power in the region. Screenwriter Ben Hecht won an Academy Award for Best Original Story for this silent but intense tale touching on power, revenge, and tragedy. This potency is matched by technical prowess from von Sternberg — ornate, stylish direction, playing with shapes and shadows, framing places and people, and some camera movements that even Sam Raimi would admire. It’s an assured work, not just from a technical perspective, and and one that you can see sowing the seeds to inspire the host of gangster films that followed.
The Last Command
Emil Jannings won the first best actor Academy Award for his performance as a sympathetic tyrant: an exiled Russian general turned Hollywood extra who lands a role playing a version of his former tsarist self, bringing about his emotional downfall. Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command is a brilliantly realized silent melodrama and a witty send-up of the Hollywood machine, featuring virtuoso cinematography, grandly designed sets and effects, and rousing Russian Revolution sequences. Towering above it all is the passionate, heartbreaking Jannings, whose portrayal of a man losing his grip on reality is one for the history books.
The Last Command is a smart, wryly entertaining melodrama that starts during the production of a Hollywood production depicting a 1917 Eastern European revolution, only to use the PTSD of one of its players to flashback to his experiences in Czarist Russia. It’s a plot device that helps compound the trauma and human elements of such a conflict, deftly juxtaposing the past and present to impressive effect. The Last Command is rooted in tragedy, the downtrodden humiliation of a protagonist, his survival, and the aftermath following him, his decline continuing. We also get a reminder as to the the harshness of Eastern Europe and indeed of Hollywood too. It’s a brooding, emotional piece, anchored by some rich, deep performances, and again supported by von Sternberg’s mastery of the camera, with a stunning series of tracking shots showing further flourishes of his talent and conveyance of scale and story.
The Docks of New York
Roughneck stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) gets into all sorts of trouble during a brief shore leave when he falls hard for Mae (Betty Compson), a wise and weary dance-hall girl, in Josef von Sternberg’s evocative portrait of working-class waterfront folk. Fog-enshrouded cinematography by Harold Rosson (The Wizard of Oz), expressionist set design by Hans Dreier (Sunset Boulevard), and sensual performances by Bancroft and Compson make this one of the legendary director’s finest works, and one of the most exquisitely crafted films of the era.
Closing out the three films is The Docks of New York, a love story that starts when a man halts an attempted suicide. An alcoholic and emotionally tinged relationship ensues, one that provides a simmering love story, laced with humor stemming from this character study and clash. The burly machismo of Bill is brought to life by George Bancroft. Standing toe to toe with him is Betty Compson’s Mae, with attitude and abilities all of her own. While we meet her during a bout of weakness, she’s not just fawning over this man who saves her; this damsel has a strength. It all feels rather unconventional, a exploration of a non-traditional romance in the late ’20s taking conventional (at the time) images of burly men and coquettish, vulnerable women and skewering them, as well as other societal facets. It’s perhaps the most visually resplendent of the three, as technique gives way to immaculately framed shots playing with shadow and light, moody moments where mist crawls over water, or sunlight cuts through fog. A fine flourish from the filmmaker to close out the set.
The package doesn’t make clear if there’s any new transfer or restoration; indeed a little research indicates they’re ported over from earlier releases, which is a rare thing for Criterion to do. Despite this, the presentation is certainly good. Detail is sharp, image is clear, contrast and blacks impress. The image can be a little noisy at times, with moments of heavier grain evident as well as some fuzziness, and some damage is evident too. But overall, considering the age of the films, they look solid. Extra features seem a little light by Criterion’s usual standards, but are of top quality:
- Six scores by Robert Israel for all three films, Alloy Orchestra for Underworld and The Last Command, and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton for The Docks of New York: New/alternative scores composed for the films.
- Underworld — How it Came to Be: A video essay on the film by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom. She narrates over glimpses of footage, stills, concept art, photos from the production, and fleshes out the production, as well as von Sternberg’s life, career, and relationship with various filmmakers and film studios. It’s a quality deep dive into the man and his works.
- Von Sternberg Till ’29: A similar featurette to the one above, this one by author Tag Gallagher. It covers similar material, reflecting on his past and early career, but veers into some more technical appreciation, breaking down how von Sternberg frames, shoots, and lights scenes, little details and emotion worked into scenes. A great appreciation of how the filmmaker worked.
- Interview with Josef von Sternberg — 1968: An archival interview, running about 40 minutes. Primarily in Swedish, the director opens up about his personal life, work, and his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich. It’s a trip down memory lane which causes him to open up to a wonderful degree.
- 95-page Essay Booklet: A collection of essays pertaining to each of the three films, several pieces on the scores for each film, excerpts from von Sternberg’s autobiography, and also Ben Hecht’s original story that inspired Underworld.
The Bottom Line
3 Silent Classics is a treat, not just for fans of Josef von Sternberg, but for any cinephile. It’s an early body of work that any director would be proud of, not just showcasing this filmmaker’s talents but enhancing appreciation of them too.
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg is available via Criterion now.