3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Vienna-born, New York–raised Josef von Sternberg directed some of the most influential, stylish dramas ever to come out of Hollywood. Though best known for his star-making collaborations with 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) made into shadowy movie spectacle. Criterion is proud to present these long unavailable classics of American cinema, each with two musical scores.
The Criterion Collection outdoes themselves, gathering together into one box set three great, early silent films by director Josef von Sternberg, aptly titling the set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg. The set presents Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York over three dual-layer discs, presenting each film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1. The image on each one has also been window boxed.
I was curious as to how these films would look and was thrilled with what I got, each transfer exceeding my expectations. All three have issues with the materials that shouldn’t be a surprise, presenting scratches, pulsating, flickering, jumps, and missing frames, but each film varies. The Last Command may be in the worst shape of the three, looking fuzzy and out of focus through most of the film, and presenting the most amount of scratches and debris, but when all things are considered, these issues are still minimal and not nearly as bad as one would probably expect.
The Docks of New York is easily the best looking film, presenting an incredibly sharp image with minimal damage present, just a few scratches here and there, with a couple of sequences getting particularly heavy briefly (and a tramline runs through at times during the last act.) This film looks striking, especially for one over 80 years old.
All three films present solid digital transfers, with fairly high bitrates. The image on all three is as sharp as their respective source materials will allow, and present no noticeable artifacts. Contrast in all three films is excellent, with deep blacks and fairly bright (though not blinding) whites.
In all their wonderful transfers, about as good as I could have hoped. And though it’s disappointing Criterion can’t release these on Blu-ray (apparently they did not get the Blu-ray rights from Paramount) that shouldn’t stop anyone from purchasing this set; even upscaled they still look wonderful.
Again, each film in the set is silent, but Criterion has included two scores for each film. Robert Israel composed a score exclusively for each film in the set, Criterion then including optional scores compsed for past screenings of the films. For Underworld and The Last Command Criterion includes scores composed by the Alloy Orchestra for screenings at the New York Film Festival, and then includes a score by Donald Sosin for The Docks of New York that were composed for a screening at a film festival in Bologna, Italy in 2008.
I really liked Israel’s scores and will probably stick with them on future viewings. They’re loud and not at all subtle, but they really seem to fit the films and have a grandiose sound that I’m sure would have been common at big screenings in New York. The Alloy Orchestral scores are good, though more experimental, also adding a somewhat different tone to the films when compared to Israel’s. And though it’s not awful I can’t say I was particularly fond of Sosin’s score, which throws in some vocals by Joanna Seaton that don’t really jive with the film (or at least I felt this.)
All of the tracks are presented in stereo and sound exceptional, so sound quality isn’t an issue. It will just come down to personal preference for one’s viewings of the films.
Though there isn’t even two-hours’ worth of supplements on here, Criterion has still put together an incredibly comprehensive collection of supplements spread out over the three discs, which make up for the lack of much else.
The first disc, Underworld presents a lone video essay. Entitled Underworld: How it Came to Be, this 36-minute video essay hosted by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom makes up for the lack of much else on the disc, including the lack of an audio commentary. While speaking over scenes from films, stills of photographs, documents, letters, notes, and sketches, Bergstrom first covers von Sternberg’s early life and how he managed to get into film. She covers his first film, The Salvation Hunters, with great detail, and how it was seen by Charlie Chaplin who praised it and picked it up to distribute through United Artists. From there von Sternberg moved on to other projects, though nothing really took off, Chaplin even seeming to want to bury one of his films, A Woman of the Sea. She then gets into his move to Paramount, and how he came to become the director of Underworld. From this point Bergstrom concentrates on the film, giving a very detailed history of its productions, and problems the film’s writer, Ben Hecht, had with the finished product (finding it a little sentimental.) She analyzes some of the differences between the finished film and the final script, and how von Sternberg made the changes to make the film more visual, breaking down a few sequences. She has plenty of drawings and notes present, and even quotes from those that knew or worked with the director, including Evelyn Brent, who played as “Feathers,” who goes into great detail about working with “Joe” and her admiration of him. She then covers the advertising, it’s release (the film becoming a surprise hit for Paramount) and then immediate jobs von Sternberg got after that (including having to reedit von Stroheim’s The Wedding March. It’s a great feature, and makes much of anything else unnecessary for this disc.
Another supplement is then found on the second disc, which presents The Last Command. On this disc Tag Gallagher provides another one of his visual essays, this one entitled Von Sternberg Till ‘29 and running 35-minutes. Similar to the visual essay by Janet Bergstrom on the first disc, Gallagher covers the director’s early life and then quickly moves to his feature film, The Salvation Hunters, and his brief working relationship with Charlie Chaplin. From there Gallagher focuses on the films in this set, offering an analysis and breakdown of many sequences from the three films and his first film, The Salvation Hunters, with clips from all, showing how von Sternberg had an early grasp on film language. He talks about how the director displays emotions, talks about his framing, use of sets (including how the placement of items in the foreground affect the feel of a scene,) light and shadow, and even gets into great detail how cigarettes come into play in each of the films in this set. Mixed in are plenty of photos and archival film footage, and he offers plenty of quotes from von Sternberg. As with all of Gallagher’s visual essays it’s an exceptional and intriguing one.
The third disc, presenting The Docks of New York, presents a great inclusion, an interview with director Josef von Sternberg, recorded in Sweden in 1969. Running 40-minutes, and presented in a mix of Swedish and English (with optional English subtitles for the Swedish spoken,) it’s a fairly candid interview with the director as he talks about his early silent work and Marlene Dietrich to a certain degree. It focuses on a few of his films, primarily The Salvation Hunters, Underworld, the unfinished I, Claudius, and even Anathan (it even has clips for all of the films, including a finished sequence from I, Claudius.) But the interview gets especially good when they start looking at the Swedish posters for his early films with the director recalling the films and the actors he worked with. And similar to a feature found on Criterion’s The Scarlet Empress, von Sternberg then gives a demonstration of his lighting technique. In all a great inclusion on Criterion’s part and most definitely worth viewing.
And closing off the set is possibly the set’s best feature: a 95-page booklet containing a wealth of material. First are essays for each of the films, including one for Underworld by Geoffrey O’Brien, another for The Last Command by Anton Keas, and then finally one for The Docks of New York by Luc Sante. Notes on the scores by the composers follow this, written by Robert Israel, Ken Winokur (for the Alloy Orchestra,) and the Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. In the coolest inclusion, we get Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld, which is quite a bit different, most specifically the ending. But the best piece would have to be the excerpt from von Sternberg’s memoirs Fun in a Chinese Laundry where he recollects working with actor Emil Jannings, which was apparently a frustrating experience, leading the director to state that even if Jannings was the last actor on earth, he would never work with him again. Containing some exceptional material and great insight, this is one of Criterion’s best booklets.
As a whole there may not look to be much in the way of supplements but they’re all fantastic and add a lot of value to the set. A great collection of materials.
This is one of my favourite sets this year. It’s an exceptional release and I commend Criterion for their efforts (and also commend Paramount for at least licencing the films out to a company that would actually release them.) With its stunning transfers and fantastic supplements, this is one of the best releases from Criterion this year and it comes highly recommended.