The collaboration between filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich is one of the most enduring in all Hollywood cinema. Tasked by Paramount bosses to find ‘the next big thing’, director von Sternberg lighted upon German silent star Dietrich and brought her to Hollywood. Successfully transitioning from the silent to the sound era, together they crafted a series of remarkable features that expressed a previously hitherto unbridled ecstasy in the process of filmmaking itself. Marked by striking cinematography, beautiful design and elaborate camerawork these vibrantly sensuous films redefined cinema of the time, while Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous on-screen personas caused a sensation and turned her from actor to superstar and icon. Lavish, lascivious and wildly eccentric, the films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made for Paramount Pictures in the 1930s provide a unique testimony to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The six films that von Sternberg made with Dietrich in Hollywood are presented here in new restorations on Blu-ray for the very first time in the UK. Containing a wealth of new and archival extras – including new appreciations, interviews, audio commentaries, rare films, outtakes and deleted audio, documentaries… and more! This stunning box set is strictly limited to 6,000 units.
Part of their Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount box set (featuring all of their collaborations together that are not The Blue Angel), Indicator presents the first film, Morocco, on the first dual-layer disc of the set in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Indicator appears to be using the same master Criterion used for their own release, which came from a 2K restoration. The source of the scan was a 35mm safety fine-grain held by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Though encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition, the disc is also encoded for region B and North American viewers will require a player that can playback region B content.
I couldn’t detect any real difference between Indicator’s and Criterion’s presentations doing a quick flip between players, with both seeming to offer both the same pros and cons. Indicator’s is still encoded beautifully and it doesn’t present any detectible artifacts, keeping a wonderful filmic texture and rendering the film’s grain (which is heavy) perfectly; it looks like a projected film.
Its issues really come down to source materials in the end. The film is rarely all that sharp, and this more than likely has to do with the condition of the materials and how the film was shot (soft focus has been obviously applied). Damage is also pretty consistent, with tram lines and scratches probably being the more noticeable offenders. Yet even then, damage isn’t as bad as I would have originally suspected (when I first popped in Criterion’s edition) and it’s obvious a lot of work went into this. I’m not sure if Indicator did any further work but doing those quick comparisons between this edition and Criterion’s release doesn’t reveal any differences.
In the end it ranks there with the Criterion: the source limits some aspects simply because of age or imperfections in the materials, but the encode and digital presentation are exceptional.
Indicator also presents the film in lossless PCM 1.0 mono and it shows the same issues as the Criterion presentation. Background noise is obvious (with a crackling that gets heavy), and the track is tinny. But when all is said and done this unfortunately just comes down to age and there are no other severe issues. Yes, music can get a bit harsh but dialogue is easy to hear.
Based on this title (and on Dishonored, the only other title I’ve watched as of this writing) the presentations between Indicator’s and Criterion’s editions don’t differ. Where the respective sets do differ is what they offer in supplemental material. Criterion front loaded their titles with features, but they dwindled as I went through the set and in the end they’re not as substantial as one would have hoped to find in what should be a comprehensive release. Indicator corrects this and then-some, loading their set with a number of supplements, and they start off things just right for Morocco with a wonderful, exclusive audio commentary featuring Kat Dellinger and Sam Deighan from the Daughters of Darkness Podcast.
I’m a fan of their commentary tracks though admit I’m only familiar with their offerings for horror and cult films. I was surprised (unfairly I admit now) they would participate for a Dietrich/von Sternberg title and wasn’t sure what I would get, but (of course) I got the same level of quality and energy they offer in all of their other tracks. The two talk about the early working relationship between the two (starting with The Blue Angel) and how they built up the Dietrich persona. They also touch on a number of topics directly related (or not directly related) to the two’s work together, such as the pre-code era and the introduction of the Hayes code, the well-written and feminine characters Dietrich was able play, the studio system of the time, and they also address various rumours that started back then, offering their own thoughts on whether they’re true or not. They also have plenty of fun little additions, like the possibility that von Sternberg (who may have been annoyed with Gary Cooper while making the film) used Cooper’s height against him. Moreover, they look at the structure of the story, the design, its themes and story points, and most importantly they keep the track going at a great beat. It’s obviously structured and planned, as the two touch the points they want to make, but it never feels scripted, coming off fun and loose. This alone beats out a number of the supplements Criterion included in their set.
Nicholas von Sternberg participates in a couple of new supplements, starting with a 10-minute introduction where he goes over his father’s career from the success of Underworld up through to discovering Dietrich, and then making The Blue Angel and Morocco. He then talks about his father’s artwork and how his esthetic carried over to films. His father’s artwork is displayed on screen while he talks over it, recalling some pieces, how his father worked, and how it has always been there throughout his life. The artwork displayed varies between paintings and sculptures.
The only item that appears both here and on Criterion’s edition is the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, called The Legionnaire and the Lady. Dietrich reprises her role and Clark Gable now plays Tom Brown, taking over for Gary Cooper. The plot is pretty much the same but since it’s radio everything must be conveyed through dialogue and because of this—and the shorter run time, running around 59-minutes with breaks and ads—its scenes get to the point in a much quicker fashion while pumping up the melodrama. This ends up ruining several sequences memorable in the film, including the apple sale bit and the ending, which offers a more definitive conclusion. Most odd, though, is the fact Dietrich doesn’t perform any numbers (other than “Falling in Love Again,” from The Blue Angel, at the end), which would seem like an obvious inclusion for a radio adaptation. Like other radio adaptations it’s a fascinating time capsule that again just makes you more aware of the visuals in the film and how von Sternberg (in this instance) tells his stories through them.
The disc then closes with a large navigable image gallery, featuring around 62 images, including production photos, ads, and poster art.
The set also comes with a booklet, though I haven’t received a copy of it yet.
Criterion’s similar box set was a bit disappointing as the supplements felt slim for what could have been a very comprehensive set. Criterion’s edition of Morocco was one of the more stacked titles in the set, but Indicator’s still beats it out, simply with the inclusion of the excellent audio commentary.
Indicator starts their set off with a bang, delivering an excellent audio/video presentation (though no different from what Criterion’s own edition offers) and great set of supplements.