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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • The 20-minute BBC documentary The World of Josef von Sternberg
  • Production stills and lobby cards
  • Von Sternberg tribute by underground filmmaker Jack Smith

The Scarlet Empress


Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Josef von Sternberg
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon, Olive Tell, Ruthelma Stevens, Erville Alderson, Davison Clark, Phillip Sleeman, Marie Wells
1934 | 104 Minutes | Licensor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Release Information
DVD | MSRP: $29.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #109 | Out of print
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: May 8, 2001
Review Date: April 3, 2019

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SYNOPSIS

Filmmaker-svengali Josef von Sternberg escalates his obsession with screen legend Marlene Dietrich in this lavish depiction of sex and deceit in the 18th-century Russian court. A self-proclaimed "relentless excursion into style," the pair's sixth collaboration follows the exploits of Princess Sophia (Dietrich) as she evolves from trembling innocent to cunning sexual libertine Catherine the Great. With operatic melodrama, flamboyant visuals, and a cast of thousands, this ornate spectacle represents the apex of cinematic pageantry by Hollywood's master of artifice.

Forum members rate this film 7.9/10

 

Discuss the film and DVD here   


PICTURE

The Criterion Collectionís original DVD edition of Joseph Von Sternbergís The Scarlet Empress presents the film in the aspect ratio of about 1.33:1. There are no notes on the source but itís obvious a theatrical print is the source and the restoration was done in standard-definition.

Although the specifications indicate a ďluminous new digital transferĒ this final image is still a bit of a mess. Damage is quite heavy, from large scratches, tram lines, bits of dirt, missing frames, and so on, down to tinier bits of dirt, pulsing, and flickering. You also get plenty of reel-change indicators (cigarette burns). Iím sure restoration work was done, but thereís still a lot to be removed. I could say Iím spoiled and that modern technology has gotten better at cleaning up damage (Criterionís new Blu-ray for the film looks amazing, almost completely free of source issues), giving me unfair expectations, but even for the time itís lacking.

It also doesnít help that the digital presentation leaves a lot to be desired. The image does manage to deliver strong details but artifacts are fairly rampant, film grain looking noisy and messy. Contrast can also look a little blown out, harming the shadows in some of the shots. It looks messy and Iím so happy Criterion has been able to revisit it.

5/10

All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The filmís audio is also a bit of a mess. Presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono it is edgy and distorted, delivers a heavy amount of background noise, and has a few drops and pops. Dialogue is still easy to hear, but itís still flat and weak. The age obviously doesnít help but the restoration probably doesnít go as far as it could have.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion only includes a couple of on-disc supplements. Outside of a navigable gallery there is also a wonderful 20-minute interview with Joseph von Sternberg. The short interview has the filmmaker talk about his life and career, but the most fascinating aspect is his demonstration on how he accomplishes his lighting, which is edited throughout the feature. Itís a really wonderful discussion and it sadly has not been carried over to the new DVD and Blu-ray editions.

The insert includes an essay on the film by Robin Wood, as well as a reprint of an appreciation of von Sternberg by experimental filmmaker Jack Smith.

And thatís it.

It leaves a lot to be desired (Iím still surprised there was nothing about Dietrich) but the included interview is pretty great.

4/10

CLOSING

One of Criterionís weaker early DVDs, it delivers a poor A/V presentation and really punts it on the features. I was always surprised they didnít put more effort into the release at the time. At any rate, I would easily skip this and just pick up Criterionís Dietrich/Sternberg set.


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