DEATH WATCH: JOSEF VON STERNBERG ADAPTS AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931)

September 8, 2015

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In 1931 the Paramount Publix Corporation was eager to film an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, having failed to do so since acquiring the rights soon after its publication in 1925. They got close in 1930, when the visiting Sergei Eisenstein wrote an experimental script that was eventually rejected for being too long and uncommercial. So instead they assigned Josef von Sternberg, who was coming off three hits starring Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Dishonored), and seemed to have the box office touch for artier, offbeat material. The resulting film, now out on DVD from the Universal Vault (the transfer is likely from an old VHS master, soft but watchable), is an oneiric oddity, using dreamlike visuals to illustrate a story of true crime barbarism – murder by drowning. Water imagery abounds, in lap dissolves and superimpositions – it even breaks up Von Sternberg’s name in the opening credits. Von Sternberg turns Dreiser’s indictment of American society, one that created the conditions for murder, into something more subjective and opaque. Dreiser claimed that Paramount had turned his novel into an “ordinary murder story”, and sued to have the movie’s release halted. The New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Paramount, and the film was released. Motion Picture Herald claimed the decision was, “likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture.” So whenever Hollywood takes creative liberties with a novel, for better or worse, it has Paramount’s An American Tragedy to thank.

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“I have just finished reading the Eisenstein adaptation of An American Tragedy. It was for me a memorable experience; the most moving script I have ever read. It was so effective, that it was positively torturing. When I had finished it, I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle. As entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred. …Is it too late to try to persuade the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” – David O. Selznick to B.P. Schulberg, October 8, 1930

In April of 1930 the Vice President of Paramount, Jesse Lasky, signed Eisenstein to a contract – he would receive $900 a week, out of which he would pay his cameraman Eduard Tisse and assistant Grigori Aleksandrov . They all arrived in Hollywood in May, and received the grand tour, visiting Disney, and attending a party at Ernst Lubitsch’s place at which Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were guests. An American Tragedy was settled upon as the project. Dreiser’s story was based on the real murder of 20-year-old Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in Upstate New York in 1906. They were transposed into the novel and film as farm girl Roberta Alden and son of poverty Clyde Griffiths. Griffiths runs away from his hometown after witnessing a murder, and bounces around menial jobs (bellboy and dishwasher) until he lands a job at a printing and stamping factory. It is there he meets Roberta, and he believes he is in love until he sets his eyes on the upper class charms of Sondra, the hit of the society pages. Clyde will lose his job if his relationship with Roberta comes to light, so thoughts turn to making her disappear. Eisenstein became entranced with the idea of “internal monologue”, which was not simple voiceover but more like stream-of-consciousness audio montage that would ebb and flow with the intensity of the characters’ emotions. A snippet from his script treatment:

“As the boat glides into the darkness of the lake, so Clyde glides into the darkness of his thoughts. Two voice struggle within him — one: ‘Kill — kill!’ the echo of his dark resolve, the frantic cry of all his hopes of Sondra and society; the other: ‘Don’t — don’t kill!’ the expression of his weakness and his fears, of his sadness for Roberta and his shame before her. In the scenes that follow, these voices ripple in the waves that lap from the oars against the boat; they whisper in the beating of his heart; they comment, underscoring, upon the memories and alarums that pass through his mind; each ever struggling with the other for mastery, first one dominating then weakening before the onset of its rival.”

He had more abstract ideas too, in line with the work of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein that he admired: “Then in passionate disconnected speech. nothing but nouns. Or nothing but verbs. Then interjections. With zigzags of aimless shapes, whirling along with these in synchronization.” The script he delivered would run 14 reels (around 154 minutes), and Paramount had no intention of following his whims for such an obvious money losing project. Selznick’s view won out, and Paramount paid Eisenstein $30,000 to end their contract. They turned to von Sternberg to get the film made.

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Sternberg claims to have seen nothing of Eisenstein’s treatment, and considered him a friend from their evenings together. In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, he recalls, “I was approached by Adolph Zukor. He told me that the company had a dormant investment of half a million dollars in An American Tragedy, and pleaded with me to undertake to salvage this by making an inexpensive version of it. I eliminated the sociological elements [with screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein], which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser had concerned himself.” So gone was the precise detailing of Clyde’s social class, and, so, according to Dreiser, “instead of an indictment of society, the picture is a justification of society and an indictment of Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes).” I would say the film does not justify society as much as ignore it, and it is not an indictment of Griffiths but an attempt to understand him. The film tries to get into his head through the atmospherics provided by DP Lee Garmes and sound recordist Harry D. Mills, who had both worked on Morocco and Dishonored. Though limited by the close attention being paid the project by the censors (Roberta’s (Sylvia Sidney) attempted abortion is implied rather than stated in the film), it tries to sketch out Clyde’s fantasy life.

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The first we glimpse of Clyde’s factory job, he is overseeing his young female clientele, and Garmes’ camera tracks to the right, pausing when Clyde pauses, as the women stare up at him with theatrical flirtations. After Clyde returns to his Spartan office, the floor covered in rejected collars, there is an unusual cut to an extreme close-up underneath the factory tables, of women’s feet and ribbon. It is the only insert in the entire sequence — a peek inside his head, into his limited interests of his erotic imagination. Water is the overarching trigger for Clyde’s desires, however. His first date with Roberta is a canoe ride down a stream, and Von Sternberg utilizes long lap dissolves of water, with scenes melting into and layering on top of each other. In Spring time, the blossom of his love for Roberta, a close-up of the shimmering river is superimposed on top of a long-shot of the same river, creating an abstract image of glimmer, something of the sensorium exploding in Clyde’s head. Later when he hears the newsboy haranguing passersby with headlines of a drowned woman, murder arrives on the horizon of possibilities. Clyde’s hand hovering over a map is then dissolved over an image of a lake, as he begins to assert control over his own violent desires, starts to put them into action.

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This intimate dreamscape, some of Von Sternberg’s most discomfiting work, asking the audience to identify with a fetishistic killer, ends abruptly in the extended courtroom sequence that ends the film, a marathon of stilted exposition. The slow, drowsy build into Clyde’s paranoid mindset turns flat and realist, the fog of mystery lifted in favor of legibility and half-hearted redemption. But a film with as complex a production history as this one couldn’t help but being compromised in the end, with so many demands coming from Paramount, the censors, and Dreiser’s lawsuit. It is two-thirds of a great film.

BOOKS ON FILM: A LIST

June 9, 2009

The problem of the young cinephile: what to see next? Growing up in movie-thin Buffalo, I had to consult the oracles: movie critics in bigger cities. Then there was the winnowing process – who to trust and who to ignore? Once I locked in on a kindred spirit, I followed in lockstep with their viewing and reading recommendations. Soon a whole network of informed writers radiated from my admiration of one critic, and opened up whole new vistas of learning. For me, that critic was Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader. Sure, I also gobbled up the words of J. Hoberman at the Village Voice, but Rosenbaum had a combative skepticism that suited my own tastes of the time, and I eagerly anticipated his work every week. His enthusiasms also led me to the work of Manny Farber, Joe Dante, Jacques Rivette, and a whole host of others.

Why the reminiscing? Well, the enigmatically named MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image started a meme on his site, listing the ten film books that left the greatest impression on him. He encouraged other film bloggers to do the same, and it’s been all over the internet this past week. I noticed it first at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running. Below the fold is my contribution, all of them determining factors towards my questionable taste.

1. The Chicago Reader‘s Brief Reviews Archive: Admittedly, this is cheating, but ever since I discovered this vast trove of critical nuggets from Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, I’ve considered it my go-to reference book, despite its mere virtual existence. With the click of my sweaty fingers, I could read the concise and informed opinion of my two favorite writers on just about any cinematic subject at hand. Need a recommendation for an upcoming pre-code series? Hmm…Me and My Gal was Manny Farber’s favorite Raoul Walsh, sez Rosenbaum, and that it’s “A small picture, but an ecstatic one.” Sold!  I’ve consulted the site more than anything bound in pulp, and I daresay I’m the better for it.

2. Negative Space, by Manny Farber (1971, 1999): See, film critics can be great writers! Just read Negative Space, the only published collection of Farber’s work. His dense, allusive prose takes as much time to unpack as some of the films he adores (Scarface, Me and My Gal, Wavelength), and goshdarnit if he doesn’t have a cantakerously careening essay on Howard Hawks. On Scarface, and also not a bad description of his writing: “The image seems unique because of its moody energy: it is a movie of quick-moving actions, inner tension, and more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history.”  (and is Amazon lying to me or is this out of print? A tragedy, if so, despite its Kindle availability)

 

3. Howard Hawks, by Robin Wood (1981, 2006):  Of all the words I’ve consumed about Howard Hawks, these were the first and the most influential. His introduction to the 1981 edition told me that “the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ was too rigid”, and that Mozart worked for an audience as much as Hawks. His thematic breakdown of the work still holds up, as does his enthusiasm (also see his excellent recent monograph on Rio Bravo). I’ll also always agree with him on this point: “If I were asked to chose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo.”

4. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson (1975-2002): If I could rewrite history, I would have told my youthful self to purchase Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema instead of this tome, but I can’t, so here we are. I’ve grown weary of Mr. Thomson and his inability to engage with contemporary cinema (see his lazy entries on Abbas Kiaorstami and Wes Anderson, for instance), but his elegant phrasing and embrace of Hawks (sensing a theme?) were definitely valuable, and it’s impossible to discount this book’s importance in shaping my young mind. The only thing that sticks with me from that book is his epic ode to Johnny Carson, both moving and mystifying for this Letterman-aged viewer.

5. This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich (1992, 1998): Before Hawks, Welles was my favorite – and where Hawks was tight-lipped, Welles was expansive. An incredibly entertaining romp through Welles’ astonishing career, with the added benefit of an exhaustive career chronology, an appendix of the scenes cut from The Magnificent Ambersons, and the memo Welles sent Universal with his suggested revisions to Touch of Evil. A treasure trove of research material to please any budding Wellesian. Also plenty to throw back at those who say Welles declined after Citizen Kane, or similarly ill-informed gobbledygook.

6. Movie Mutations, by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, et. al. (2003): My most obscure choice introduced me to a number of young cinephiles, and clued me in to the vibrant journals Senses of Cinema Rougeand Cinema ScopeIt lent me a sense that I belonged to a community, not just a darkened living room. First published as a series of letters in the French magazine Trafic, it brought together Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. These epistles were added together with a few essays on transnational cinematic exchanges: Jones on Tsai Ming-liang, Shigehiko Hasumi on Hawks (!), and an excellent tete-a-tete between Martin and James Naremore on academic film study (which I was about to enter). This volume was very prescient in regards to the bourgeoning online film community, and in a sense paved the way for my own modest entry into the online film conversation.

7. Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich (1997): Another superb book of interviews from Bogdanovich, this time chatting with a gaggle of the greatest talents from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Aldrich to Walsh (Hawks is included, of course). Rich with production minutae and backstage anecodotes, it’s an invaluable resource, and I find myself always coming back to it. My recent infatuation with Leo McCarey led me to it recently, and his reticence at discussing one of his masterpieces, Make Way for Tomorrow, is palpable and moving: “It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.”

 

8. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, by David Bordwell (1988): This is available for free as a PDF at the link provided, so download it now. Got it? OK, this is the most in-depth auteur study I’ve ever read, exhaustively covering Ozu’s style (his 360 degree use of space, low-angle camera, etc.) as well as the culture he came out of. Definitive in every sense, and essential for an understanding of one of the greats. I came to it while writing a forgotten paper on An Autumn Afternoon, and its erudition, depth, and breadth are staggering. Read his blog, too!

9. Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel, by Jose de la Colina & Tomas Perez Turrent (1986, 1992): Bunuel’s autiobiography, My Last Sigh, is phenomenal (I’ve never forgotten his poetic description of his lost sex drive), but the offhanded charm of this collection of interviews was too hard to resist. Full of important lessons, like, “Let’s put a little rum in our coffee like they do in Spanish country towns. It gives coffee a nice smell.”

10. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, by Josef von Sternberg (1965) & A Third Face, by Sam Fuller (2002): I cheated at the beginning, so it’s only appropriate I do so at the close. These cooly enigmatic (Sternberg) and riotously entertaining (Fuller) autobiographies are fascinating reflections of these directors respective artistic personalities. Von Sternberg is dry, ironic, and withholding: “The system of films can be a severe shock to anyone whose mind has made progress since childhood.” Fuller is blunt and hilarious: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.” Both revelatory in their own way.