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is excellent viewing for anyone fascinated with that transitional period in Hollywood’s history as the silent era drew to a close and for anyone wanting to make a closer examination of this legendary director’s work.
Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”).
That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.
But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema.
The visuals are an incredibly gritty and realistic in a manner that would not be widely seen for another ten to fifteen years.
Bull Weed staring up at the neon sign “The City Is Yours” and the gangland ball in the middle of the film, with thugs in tuxedos and streamers coating the floor, are echoed in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), which was also scripted by Ben Hecht (Sternberg rewrote Hecht’s story to the point that Hecht disavowed the script… That’s where it really anticipates the classic gangster story: the underworld network of criminals, the attitude, and especially the cast of street thugs in society dress, appropriating the dress of the upper class while twisting the manners and mores into a warped reflection of high society.But even The Criterion Collection couldn’t remove all damage to the aged elements without spending an inordinate amount of money. Yes, but Criterion commissioned two new scores for each film that are pleasant additions and appropriate to the style and time.Most dust and major scratches have been eliminated; what remain are projector wear lines and a handful of scenes in each film (probably at the reel changes) in which heavy scratching runs in all directions. Special features include two new visual essays by film historians about von Sternberg and his work; a Swedish TV interview with the director from 1968; and a 96-page book with essays and Ben Hecht’s original story for .While informative in content, the visual essays are rather dry in presentation, but at least they avoid the trite clichés of so many studio-produced featurettes.The Swedish interview is intriguing as a piece of archival footage in its own right, and the book makes for interesting in-depth reading.