I cannot believe I let this set languish on my shelf for nearly four years. These three films are just tremendous, and of the box sets I've watched from Criterion, this is the only set that comes close to Three Colors in the overall quality/rating of the films, so in terms of films alone, this is probably their second best box set.
I watched most of Sternberg's 30s films a decade ago, and haven't really seen anything of his since. I remember that Blue Angel and Morocco were very good, but Shanghai Express was the true standout--these three films blow all of them out of the water.
Underworld is superb, a proto gangster genre entry that's much better than most of the early thirties gangster efforts that get overpraised all to often. I enjoy all of those films, but like the Universal horrors of the era, hardly any rise above excellent&entertaining into the great realm. Underworld actually ranks up there with Scarface, Roaring Twenties and White Heat as one of the finest early exemplars of the genre characteristics, it's a shame this title has been overlooked for so many decades. The great performances, outstanding camera work and staging are all lovely, I loved the plotting and narrative drive of the film, just outstanding.
And then The Last Command is a true masterpiece. The narrative design of the film is bold, it incorporates self-reflexive critique of the process of filmmaking and the 'class' system of hollywood within its classic frame story/flashback structure; Sternberg thematically ties the proletariat of Hollywood to the downtrodden of Russia and the generals/tsars of Russia with the directors of Hollywood, and in doing so makes both men complete circuits of class status within his circular narrative. Emil Jannings' over-the-top scenery chewing performance is mesmerizing, though William Powell's deliberately underplayed work sometimes feels like it went a little too far in the contrast-with-Jannings direction. But the film is Jannings through and through...except when Sternberg's fabulous camera work, staging and lighting design is even more breathtaking. The long shot when the men receive their costume is brilliantly conceived and thematically potent, as the visuals convey all the crushing machinery and anonymity of Hollywood and the irony of real experience being contrasted against 'movie-movie' inventions--interestingly, this shot also made me connect Hollywood to the Military almost instantly. I'm not sure if that is because of the way Sternberg's work has been incorporated in the iconography of war films that came after, but I suspect that it is, because I feel like I have seen echoes of this shot in other films that came after of men being mustered and equipped through a military machine.
I was almost reluctant to watch Docks of New York, because surely any film would be a let down after The Last Command. But it was not. It was equally brilliant and stunningly different. The film is like Sunrise or Seventh Heaven by way of Port of Shadows. Gritty, passionate, and pulpy combine into a fantasia that feels oddly steeped in realism. I think you could say it's a mediation between romanesque "reality" and romantique "fantasy". In a sense, that's what Hollywood is always trying to do, a "magical realism," but it is so rarely pulled off, and even more rarely is it pulled off this perfectly. And don't get me wrong, I don't mean the film embraces fantasy or magic or anything like that, just that the stories I'm talking about are stories that catch the day-to-day magic of a breath, a beat, a lifting of the heart. That is what The Docks of New York is, pure human yearning. Phenomenal.