The tragic death of F.W. Murnau in 1931 effectively passed the torch of the world’s most exotic filmmaker to Josef Von Sternberg. Indeed, “Brooklyn Jo” had already been making sophisticated adult-themed films set in such far-away places like Russia, Germany and Morocco for several years, but his wanderlust had not yet taken him halfway across the world to the South Seas in search of filmmaking nirvana, ala Murnau.
If “exotic” is also interpreted as alien or outlandish then Sternberg had been outstripping his German counterpart for years. Brooklyn Jo always needed a touch of indecency and a whole lot of immorality to get his creative juices flowing. While scouting locales for The Blue Angel in Berlin, he found his twisted Pygmalion in Marlene Dietrich. Together they gave Depression-era audiences seven refreshingly sinful and soulfully romantic films basked in the pungent sights, scents and sounds of Old Europe, the American South and Russia.
Sternberg’s cinema was a chivalrous one as well. His upstanding male leads (basically thinly-veiled versions of Sternberg) tended to be cuckolds to their complicated women. These otherwise decent and honorable souls took their lumps in and out of the bedroom then followed the trail of perfume to their ultimate doom. A man of rarefied tastes, Sternberg ended up in a Hollywood dream factory at a period when an increasingly sophisticated public was growing more curious about the strange world they were living in.
Sternberg was born in Vienna into a relatively poor Jewish family. His father migrated to New York several years later, then sent for his family, but as fate would have it they returned to Austria just a few years later. Restless, young Josef returned to the United States at the ripe old age of fourteen and found work in a stream of menial jobs. He educated himself by going to museums and libraries and ultimately began to make movies while enlisted in the army during WWI. He found more behind the scenes film work after the war in America and abroad and after an apprenticeship as an assistant director he made his filmmaking debut with The Salvation Hunters featuring Chaplin’s future leading lady Georgia Hale (The Gold Rush).
Set in an impoverished community of mud flats in California, The Salvation Hunters is a slow-paced and heavy-handed study of a young coward (George K. Arthur), his girl (Hale), and an orphan child (Bruce Guerin) who escape from their dreary surroundings to begin anew in the country. Soon, their mean landlord (Olaf Hytten) begins to abuse the little boy prompting the young man to finally take a stand. Since The Salvation Hunters was connected to Chaplin it received better notices than it deserved prompting Charlot to invite Sternberg to direct Edna Purviance’s comeback The Sea Gull (not the Chekhov play). But, the great comedian didn’t appreciate Sternberg’s eschewing of the emotional content of the scenario and shelved the film (which was later destroyed by tax lawyers trying to protect Chaplin’s assets in the early 1930s).
Sternberg’s breakout film would be Underworld, a sensational take on gangland life. Based on a story by Ben Hecht the film chronicles the rise and fall of Chicago hoodlum Bull Weed (George Bancroft) whose weakness is revealed in the person of his lovely mistress “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Bullying his way to the top of the crime circuit, the boisterous Weed is human enough to take pity on Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), a former lawyer who has fallen on hard times. After Weed humiliates his chief rival Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler), the angry gangster plots to seduce Feathers leading to a final confrontation between the men. Weed kills Mulligan in cold blood unaware it is Rolls Royce who has won the affections of his girl.
Weed is arrested and sentenced to die. On death row, he learns of Rolls’ betrayal and when he breaks out the night of the execution he returns to his old hideout to confront Royce and Feathers. There he finds his two friends putting their necks on the line to save the escaped convict. Realizing, he has lost Feathers’ love for good Weed orchestrates their escape and gives himself up to the police.
This granddaddy of Goomba flicks still packs a wallop after all these years. Though it lacks the pace and pizzazz of Warner Brothers’ early gangster films featuring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft, Underworld introduced the definitive Sternberg style of long takes and minimal cuts, letting the action evolve within an immaculately composed frame. It’s through such careful technique Sternberg was able to coerce surprisingly good performances from limited actors like Bancroft whose slow burns of jealousy fuel the bad behavior in this Passion Play.
As an established contract director at Paramount, Sternberg began to take on a wider variety of projects. One of the great movies about movies, The Last Command is a highly romantic spin on the Russian Revolution. Toiling in the make-believe world of Hollywood, former Soviet insurrectionist Lev Andreyev (William Powell) is directing a big budget film on the revolution. While casting for extras he finds a headshot of Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, the favored General of deposed Czar Nicholas II. Living alone in poverty, the feeble Sergius answers the summons from the studio, but it’s painfully clear from his first day at work he’s at the end of his rope.
The fateful meeting with Andreyev kicks off an extended flashback to 1917 where we see next see the General parading his troops in front of the Czar then pulling some strings behind the scenes to hold the Eastern front. To help quell the insurgents Grand Duke Sergei banishes the radical Andreyev then confiscates the younger man’s girlfriend Natalie (Evelyn Brent) for his own pleasure. As the Revolution closes in on the Czar’s overtaxed Army, Natalie nobly betrays Sergei in order to save his life. Ten years later on the film set, the sight of the trenches wreaks havoc on the General’s memory and he heroically rouses the troops to make on last stand.
Trivializing history for entertainment’s sake, The Last Command is a wonderful marriage of high art and kitsch. The sides are blurred (Andreyev actually eulogizes Sergei as a “great man”) and logic is cast adrift, so Sternberg can spin his filmmaking magic. Though shot exclusively in an enclosed studio, the films feels big thanks in a large part to some DeMille-esque direction of large crowd scenes and some clever, if not wholly believable, use of miniatures as Natalie’s train plunges into its watery grave. Sternberg’s meticulous attention to set design creates a poetic take on Mother Russia which holds up far better than most Hollywood attempts to tackle similar fare. Of the players, Jannings steals the show in one his more understated performances as the haughty Grand Duke forced to humble himself in the name of love…and art.
The perversely lyrical The Docks of New York anticipates Sternberg’s masochistic masterpieces with Marlene Dietrich. George Bancroft plays the brawny stoker Bill Roberts who spends long days fueling furnaces in the bowels of ships pulling in and out of Manhattan harbor. At night, Bill visits his favorite local tavern where he is notorious for boozing, brawling and picking up the occasional dame. On the way home one evening, Bill spots a body floating in the river and jumps in to save the apparent suicide. He carries the young woman back to his grimy flat and successfully revives her.
Bill quickly takes a shine to Mae (Betty Compson), a down on her luck prostitute, and tries to cheer her up. To prove his sincerity, Bill takes Mae to the Tavern where he offers to marry her in front of all his friends. But, since it is too late to get a marriage certificate the wedding is invalid. The next morning the now sober Bill is ready to take on a new job and pull out of town. But, when a rival (Mitchell Lewis) makes an unexpected play for Mae, the man’s estranged wife (Olga Baclanova) pumps him full of lead.
Rich in Bowery-like atmosphere and populated by a motley crew of colorful lowlifes, The Docks of New York finds Brooklyn Jo Sternberg in a perfect comfort zone. The bitter and singularly attractive Compson is a perfect romantic companion to the strutting, hard-boiled stoker, giving Bancroft a reason to settle down, which is what we assume he will do after a short stretch in stir. Sumptuously shot by cinematographer Harold Rossen (The Wizard of Oz), Docks is the only surviving film of three (The Dragnet & The Case of Lena Smith being the others) he would shoot for Sternberg. The film would also be the earliest existing example of screenwriter Jules Furthman’s work with the director. A master at creating exotic underworlds and eccentric characters, Furthman would become Sternberg’s favored scenarist before moving on in the late 1930s to forge another memorable and prolific collaboration with Howard Hawks.
Another Furthman scenario (penned in collaboration with his brother Charles), Thunderbolt, would become Sternberg’s first talkie. Gangster George Bancroft is pitted against virtuous bank clerk Richard Arlen as men who vie for the affections of the two-faced Fay Wray. The gangster frames his rival but both men end up in adjacent cells on death row. Though Thunderbolt never soars to the heights of Sternberg and Bancroft’s gangland predecessor (Underworld), it is probably the best of the countless prison pictures made during the period and was something of a landmark for sound film. Set in closed quarters, Sternberg made clever use of microphone placement picking up off-screen dialogue and ambient sounds, giving an extra dimension to this early talkie. For his next film, Sternberg would continue to explore innovations in sound on a soundstage thousands of miles away from Hollywood.
In 1929, Emil Jannings and producer Erich Pommer summonsed Sternberg to Berlin, Germany to make The Blue Angel. Against the wishes of his producers, Sternberg cast the dowdy, bit player Marlene Dietrich in the plum role of cabaret singer Lola Lola. Under the director’s strict tutelage the married young mother cultivated her own sultry, slightly blase style which brought young cads and old fools alike to their knees.
Professor Rath (Jannings), a pompous yet revered college teacher invades a local cabaret to confront the sexy singer who is causing a major distraction among his students. Rath is appalled by the loose behavior of the chorus girls but he can’t help but be charmed by the teasing Lola (Dietrich). He doesn’t even notice when one of his students stuffs Lola’s panties down his coat pocket. The next day the shamed Rath returns to the cabaret to give Lola back her undergarments. Largely to amuse herself, Lola decides to seduce Rath setting off a full-blown affair that makes him the laughingstock of his students. Rath decides to do the right thing and marry Lola, but once he leaves town with the acting troupe he becomes a fish out of water.
Forced to take on menial tasks to pay his way, the declining Rath takes on the debasing sideshow role of a mute clown who is humiliated on stage each night by the troupe’s cruel magician Kiepert (Kurt Gerron). When Kiepert informs Rath they will be playing the Blue Angel, the Professor balks at making a spectacle of himself in front of his students and fellow teachers in his old home town. But, when Lola takes a lover Rath decides to go through the horrific charade frightening the players and audience by crowing like an enraged, impotent rooster.
The Blue Angel remains the most famous film in the Sternberg-Dietrich canon. The saucy Dietrich takes delight in peeling off tight corsets and bloomers to tease her backstage audience of students, midshipmen, and the shy college Professor. Sternberg’s expert use of scene décor and art direction (by Otto Hunte) creates a sensual and exotic netherworld. The visual style is silken and gauzy, as if we’re looking at Lola’s world through a glass of schnapps. And indeed, her cabaret certainly is a preferable place to Rath’s dreary classroom. Once on the road it becomes clear the Professor is either incapable or unwilling to take part in such an imaginary world. After his humiliating final performance he leaves the cabaret and returns to the classroom, defeated by his passions and life. Sternberg’s darkest and most brutal film turned Dietrich into an international star and she followed her mentor back to Hollywood to continue what would be one of filmdom’s most intriguing artistic collaborations.
Back at Paramount with his new sensation in tow, Sternberg aimed to find a controversial new property that would trump The Blue Angel. He chose a play by the then popular French author Benno Vigny and assigned Furthman to adapt a screenplay. In MoroccoDietrich plays Amy Jolly, a nightclub entertainer of mysterious origins who arrives in the North African country to sing at Lo Tinto’s cabaret. Amy wows her jaded audience by appearing in men’s attire and flirting with shy young ladies and the foreign legion soldiers sitting in the cheap seats. She makes a particular impression on Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) and they enter into a steamy affair. Tom’s furlough is brief and he is soon called upon to join his regiment on a thankless mission into the heart of the desert where he locks horns with a jealous superior.
Meanwhile, Amy takes up with the rich Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou). When Tom’s regiment returns without him, Amy and La Bessiere track the wounded Legionnaire down to a hospital miles away. Amy wants to rekindle the affair but doubting her sincerity Tom pushes her away. Deemed healthy, Tom returns to his regiment. Unwilling to lose her man a second time, Amy joins the other soldiers’ wives as they follow their men into the unforgiving desert.
With Morocco Sternberg daringly turns the tables on his audience by making Dietrich the hunter and the teasing Cooper the object of desire. By not accepting the money of La Bessiere, it is clear Amy is a sexually independent woman whose heart and favors are not for sale. It is the start of a trend in this grand collaboration. La Dietrich will sacrifice security, money, and power for her men, no matter how conceited and vainglorious they may be. Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes decorate the ironic scenario in exotic fashion. A master of chiaroscuro and cinematic depth of focus, Sternberg trumped the much-lauded innovations of Toland, Ford, Wyler and Welles by ten years. Indeed, Morocco turned out to be a lush movie experience for audiences suffering through the technically awkward years of early sound film.
On a first viewing, Dishonored, a thinly-veiled spin on the Mata Hari legend, may look slight and campy compared to the other films in the Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration. Here, Marlene is X-27, a beautiful Austrian woman hired to spy on the Russians during WWI. She is an odd and lonely figure her only friend is a Persian cat. But, X-27 also seems to get an adrenaline rush from daring men and dangerous situations even when her very existence hangs in the balance. When she outmaneuvers the dashing Russian spy Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen) whose capture will lead to his being shot by the Austrians, X-27 engineers his escape knowing full well her treachery means she will die by firing squad. Since X-27 will never be able to possess the man she loves (Kranau), at least she will go out on her own terms and arranges her execution in a sequence that has to be seen to be believed.
Though Dishonored has never been a favorite amongst Sternberg scholars at the very least it is an important transitional film. The tone is lighter and more ironic and Dietrich’s funny, over the top performance anticipates even more outlandish takes on femininity in Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman. Though Gary Cooper had been originally slated to play Kranau his romantic presence could well have brought an unwelcome gravitas to Dishonored. Instead, we end up with a wry espionage thriller in which the beautiful, chameleon-like spy falls for a dog-faced Russian with the shit-eating grin (McLaglen). In such an unlikely context, X-27’s showy performance at her execution makes perfect sense.
A work of supreme artistry, Shanghai Express is the final project from Sternberg’s period of Romantic filmmaking. Captain Doc Harvey (Clive Brook) has booked a first class ticket on the Peking-Shanghai express unaware his ex-fiancee Magdalen (Dietrich) is in a neighboring compartment. After breaking up with Harvey, Magdalen’s fortunes have taken an ominous turn leading her to become a girl for hire, the notorious Shanghai Lily. Lily rooms with the sultry call girl Hui Fei (the great Anna May Wong) and the two women relish teasing the prudish passengers during the dangerous three day journey. Train service is frequently interrupted by outbreaks of revolution and unbeknownst to everybody the rebels are led by fellow passenger Henry Chang (Warner Oland). When Chang’s army takes over an outpost, he holds the important Dr. Harvey hostage in exchange for a rebel arrested by the government.
Realizing her lover, and possibly, the country’s fate hangs in the balance, Lily offers herself to Chang for Harvey’s freedom. Just before the train pulls out of the depot Hui Fei kills Chang freeing Lily to rejoin the passengers. Unaware of her great sacrifice, Harvey ignores Lily until a formerly unsympathetic Missionary (Lawrence Grant) steps in to make her case.
Mocked by many critics as Grand Hotel on a train, Shanghai Express has little in common with many of the other star-studded omnibus pictures of the era. If anything, Sternberg’s flawless direction and Hans Drier’s stunning set design are the true stars giving resonance to the hackneyed plot. The luxurious train represents the last vestiges of privilege and Empire. When it pulls into a heavily populated outpost and the frightened passengers look out their windows at a scene throbbing with humanity, Sternberg is making his audience oh so aware of the split between the have and have-nots. The rich will escape this time, but the writing is on the wall.
As Lily, Dietrich is particularly reserved and fatalistic. She regrets her breakup with Doc Harvey and subsequent life as a prostitute. She longs to be Magdalen again, living out her life as a housewife in the British suburbs. But, the worldly Dr. Harvey turns out to be just as hypocritical as the rest of the reactionaries on the train. It’s doubtful much happiness will lie in store for this restless woman and judgmental man.
Sternberg’s lush entertainments were proving a huge boost at the box office for Paramount as the company struggled to keep its head above water during the darkest years of the Depression. Convinced his audience was ready for something even more outlandish Sternberg began production on Blonde Venus, his most bizarre film to date.
While hiking in Germany American scientist Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) stumbles upon Helen (Dietrich) a beautiful music hall girl swimming nude in a pond. After initially annoying her, Helen succumbs to Ned’s charms leading to marriage and a move to New York City. As a struggling chemist Ned’s take home pay is hardly enough to feed his wife and boy Johnny (Dickie Moore) and his anxiety is compounded when he learns he is gravely ill and needs to travel to Vienna to for a cure. Helen offers to raise money by going back to work as a night club performer. At first Ned angrily turns her down, but not wishing to leave his family in poverty he grudgingly accepts the offer.
Showing her savvy with agents and backstage managers, Helen negotiates a deal to become the Blonde Venus and soon her jungle act is the city’s hottest ticket. With Ned away in Europe, Helen takes up with millionaire benefactor Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) and moves out of her cold water flat to more posh surroundings. When Ned returns early he finds his apartment abandoned and then learns about Helen’s betrayal. He seeks a court order to take Johnny away from his mother, but Helen and the boy go on the lamb leaving a cold trail. Ned and a bounty hunter (Sidney Toler) pursue Helen down to Texas where the exhausted woman finally gives Johnny over to her estranged husband. At the end of the line, Helen steels herself and makes a remarkable comeback as a performer landing in Paris where Townsend happens to catch one of her shows. The playboy tries to talk her into returning to New York, but she will only join him on the condition she can see her son, once again. Against his better judgment, Ned allows Helen to visit Johnny and their touching reunion leads to a family reconciliation.
Though Dietrich is pursued by lustful and drab men throughout Blonde Venus, the real love story turns out to be between Helen and her little boy. Ned, the latest in a series of the director’s self-absorbed male leads, doesn’t seem to want or need Helen’s aid. But he ends up taking from her all the same and shows little gratitude for her sacrifices. Helen also knows a life with Townsend would just be a cynical existence without love. The forced happy ending, where bad girl Helen is cautiously welcomed back into the fold, was no doubt meant to make the censors happy. But, Helen’s act of humble pie is the only way for her to maintain her soul by keeping Johnny in her life. Sternberg winks at his audience all throughout this perversely enjoyable take on motherhood.
Nearing the end of contract with Paramount and tired of the studio’s meddling, Sternberg visited Berlin in hopes of striking a production deal with UFA but Hitler’s ascension to power made such an alliance impossible. So, Sternberg returned to Los Angeles, signed his final contract with Paramount and set to work on his greatest masterpiece.
Based on the diaries of Catherine the Great of Russia, The Scarlet Empress spins the legend of the great queen’s ascension to the throne in a perverse and amusing fashion. Little Sophia Frederica (Dietrich’s real life daughter Maria Riva) being coddled and spoiled by her German parents and through intimations of some real and imagined imagery, we find the growing young woman to have a rich and sinister fantasy life. When she comes of age, Sophia is swept away to Imperial Russia, chosen by Russia’s Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to marry her nephew the Grand Duke Peter. The dashing Count Alexei (John Lodge) tells Sophia her intended is as handsome as a Greek God and knows how to read!
When Sophia arrives at the Peterhof Palace (a sinister and spectacular menagerie of folk and modern art designed by Hans Dreier) she is greeted coolly by the Empress and inspected by the court doctor who deems her fit for motherhood. The Empress changes Sophia’s name to Catherine (it’s more Russian) and introduces her to her future husband, the imbecilic Peter (Sam Jaffe).
Once married, Catherine imposes her own will as evidenced by her cultivation of an outrageous wardrobe (designed by Cecil Beaton). She repulses the advances of the grotesque Peter and takes on a slate of lovers from her own military guard. When the Empress dies, Peter ascends to the throne and begins a reign of terror. He plots to kill Catherine but before he can set his plan in motion, the powerful new Queen has him strangled. In the operatic finale a delirious Catherine rises above the throng with a demented look in her eye—-not so unlike her deposed husband. Sternberg played loose with the facts in recreating the debauched and incestuous court of the so-called enlightened despot. Dietrich’s Catherine morphs from a dazed fairy to a sexual predator with some very willing soldiers in tow to act out her darkest fantasies.
The Scarlett Empress is bathed in an eye-popping voluptuousness previously unseen in narrative film. Buoyed by Dreier’s ripe décor, Sternberg and cinematographer Bert Glennon don’t waste a single shot and the film is impeccably edited in a full-throttle Expressionistic style. Empress is the rare museum piece that is also deliciously wicked stuff. As the public was having a difficult time putting food on their plates the extravagance of such a gourmet dish was box office poison for Dietrich, Sternberg and reeling Paramount Studios.
Based on Pierre Louys’ novel The Woman and the Puppet and a supposed adaptation by John Dos Passos, The Devil Is a Woman is Sternberg’s breathtaking and deeply ironic swan song to his Trilby. We open in carnival season in old Seville where Don Pasqual (Sternberg lookalike Lionel Atwill) spins a tale of a sexual frustration to Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero), a dashing young revolutionary. Pasqual is beguiled by Concha Perez (Dietrich), a tarty and treacherous creature who delights in teasing and tormenting the smitten man. The cocky Antonio tries his luck with the temptress, forcing to a confrontation between the men then a duel where the older man is badly wounded. Concha blames Pasqual for inciting Antonio and tells him she is running off to Paris with the handsome blade. But, at the train station Concha has a change of heart and decides to return to her sugar daddy.
This ravishing film (shot by “A.S.C.” member Sternberg and Lucien Ballard) is Sternberg’s most sophisticated take on sexuality and the perversity of human relationships. Relishing the opportunity to break out from the mannequin-like roles she played in Blonde Venus and The Scarlet Empress, Dietrich gives her most animated performance since Dishonored. Her Concha is shameless, cruel and not terribly bright—a well-placed dig from her bitter former lover. Sternberg’s use of flashbacks to chronicle Concha’s deceits is wickedly funny. The director’s abrupt editing on action, a comment on Concha’s cruelty, anticipates the jump-cutting techniques of both the French New Wave and Bunuel, particularly in his own take on the material, The Obscure Object Of Desire.
Sensing he had played himself out with both Dietrich and Paramount Sternberg resigned from the film during its post-production and was fired by the studio shortly thereafter. Not motivated to spend their hard-earned cash to watch such self-absorbed and jaded characters, Depression era audiences stayed away in droves. Adding insult to injury The Devil Is a Woman was pulled from circulation in Spain, of all places, after protests from the government.
Among Sternberg’s lesser known films both American Tragedy and Crime and Punishment turn out to be Nietzschean takes on class crime, supporting the German philosopher’s controversial “Superman” Theory. Based on the mammoth Theodore Dreiser novel, American Tragedy is the story of Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) a handsome young social climber who chooses to dispose of his working-class girlfriend Roberta (Sylvia Sidney) after she informs him she is in the family way. Waiting in the wings is Clyde’s new girl, the rich and privileged Sondra Finchley (Frances Dee), a romantic match bound to propel him out of a life of struggle. Clyde can’t follow through on his plans to drown Roberta in a lake, but she falls overboard and perishes anyway. Rather than report the “accident” Clyde returns to the sweet life with Sondra. Unfortunately, the novice criminal has left enough damning clues behind to lead to a date with the electric chair.
Nearly forgotten in the wake of George Stevens’ shimmering, romantic interpretation of the novel (A Place in the Sun), Sternberg’s film is a deterministic take on the haves and have-nots in America. Holmes’ Clyde is a chilling portrait of a young man without conscience willing to do what’s necessary to put his past behind him. Whereas 1951 audiences couldn’t find much fault in Montgomery Clift bumping off whiny Shelley Winters to get into Elizabeth Taylor’s knickers, the choice is murkier in the Sternberg film. The winsome Sidney is superior to the insipid alternative (Dee), so it’s clear Clyde’s decisions are based more on attaining status than romantic gratification. Once suspected of performing the dirty deed, Clyde is abandoned by the very people who had just welcomed into their gated communities.
After being dumped by Paramount, Sternberg signed with the Poverty Row studio Columbia to make an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s classic novel of morals (Crime and Punishment) for his old boss (ex-Paramount head) B.P. Schulberg. Working with a B-picture budget, Sternberg stripped away his trademark visual ornamentation to concentrate on the gripping philosophical chess match played out between Raskolnikov (Peter Lorre) and Police Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold). Neither Lorre nor Arnold were shy violets, so Sternberg seemed content in letting them one-up one another, much to the benefit of the confrontational material. Nevertheless, Sternberg softens the edges around Lorre to create sympathy for the otherwise arrogant young idealist. When Raskolnikov kills the monstrous pawnbroker (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) he commits the crime more out of revenge for the streetwalker Sonya (Marian Marsh) than to prove his Superman theory.
Raskolnikov goes to the police office to avoid eviction and Inspector Porfiry relishes the opportunity to meet with a young writer whose articles on the criminal mind are the talk of the town. But, Raskolnikov’s nervousness makes Porfiry suspicious and after performing a little detective work the policeman places the writer at the scene of the crime on the night of the murder. Though he lacks real evidence, Porfiry knows Raskolnikov doesn’t have what it takes to be a hardened criminal, so he waits for the young man to crack. Rejected by his family, Raskolnikov turns to God-fearing Sonya who convinces him to confess in order to save his soul. Made just one year after Sternberg’s decadent romp in the palaces of old St. Petersburg (The Scarlet Empress) Crime and Punishment found redemption in the city’s rotten underbelly.
After completing Crime and Punishment, Sternberg’s career went into a tailspin. His second film at Columbia, the Gracie Moore musical The King Steps Out is certainly a huge step down from the heights of the Dietrich cycle but it’s far from the disaster many critics proclaim it to be. Taking inspiration from a snappy Sidney Buchman script and a tried and true cast of amusing faces (Walter Connelly, Raymond Walburn, Victory Jory, etc.), Sternberg managed to craft a tasty truffle of an entertainment set in old Mittel-Europe. But by 1936 even Ernst Lubitsch had stopped making this sort of light musical and the film performed disappointingly for Moore fans and the general public. Sternberg left Columbia and the notoriously difficult director had no new prospects for work in Hollywood.
Fortunately, Sternberg had a benefactor in the British-Hungarian producer and mogul Alexander Korda, who hired him to make a film from Robert Graves’ epic novel of ancient Rome, I, Claudius. The London-based production was troubled from the get-go with the director and star Charles Laughton clashing over the actor’s interpretation of the future Roman Emperor. But, Laughton’s on set struggles paled in comparison to his co-star Merle Oberon’s nearly fatal auto accident. Without a leading lady, Sternberg and Korda (who would ultimately marry Oberon) decided to pull the plug on I, Claudius.
Fortunately, outtakes from this glorious abortion survive and are the centerpiece of the 1965 BBC project, The Epic That Never Was. It’s painfully clear from the care taken in mounting the lavish set and the performances from the tortured Laughton and Emlyn Williams as the sinister Caligula, I, Claudius was going to be a return to form for a master filmmaker. Instead, the collapse of the production turned out to be just another nail into the coffin of Sternberg’s moribund career.
It would be two years before he got another chance to direct at, as irony would have it, L.B. Mayer’s thriving MGM. Though set in the cramped and sinful streets of downtown Manhattan, Sergeant Madden was more of a drab Wallace Beery vehicle than a Josef Von Sternberg film. Here, Beery plays Shaun Madden, a precinct sergeant for the NYPD. Following in the family tradition Shaun’s son Dennis (Alan Curtis) joins the force but the impatient young man doesn’t want to follow in his father’s plodding footsteps. In his efforts to get ahead Dennis, recklessly, kills a thief then falls victim to a mob set-up, leaving Shaun to choose between his family and his allegiance to the department. Though Beery resembled beefy George Bancroft, it is clear Sternberg was completely uninspired by both his leading man and the sentimental material. The wonderful seediness of the Paramount films is nowhere to be found in this lifeless portrait of the underworld. By the turn of the decade, Sternberg’s time as an innovative filmmaker looked to be over. Little did anyone know Brooklyn Jo had one last masterpiece up his sleeve.
Just when Sternberg’s situation in Hollywood had grown extremely dire he was approached by German producer Arnold Pressburger to direct an adaptation of John Colton’s controversial play The Shanghai Gesture. Originally set in a brothel in the notorious Chinese port city, Sternberg (with help from Jules Furthman) appeased the censors by changing the locale to a successful casino, run by Madame Gin-Sling (Ona Munson). When Poppy (Gene Tierney), the spoiled half-caste daughter of shipping magnate Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), runs up a huge debt at the gambling table, the aristocrat is forced to face the foibles of his past and confront former lover Gin-Sling to arrange their daughter’s freedom from bondage.
Sternberg, art director Boris Leven and cinematographer Paul Ivano create an uncommonly rich visual bouquet for this austere and sadomasochistic affair, one of the kinkiest (and most fun) productions to have ever slipped by the Breen office. In the early bloom of her beauty Tierney is positively luscious; a sort of overripe-ness that fits Poppy’s immature and bratty demeanor. Huston plays the guilt-ridden Charteris with proper aplomb, but the acting kudos truly belong to the inwardly burning Munson, whose bitter ferocity leads to her daughter’s pathetic demise. Hoping to tap into the public’s recent fascination with exotic locales (Algiers) and adult content (Strange Cargo), the filmmakers had to have been disappointed their bizarre masterpiece never found an audience.
The former Wunderkind slipped into a professional oblivion only to resurface to film the short The Town for the war department’s Why We Fight series in 1943. Immediately after the war Sternberg found no work in film. Finally, producer David O. Selznick hired Jo to do pick-up shooting for King Vidor’s baroque western Duel in the Sun. Overzealous critics have attributed the film’s Expressionistic look to Sternberg, but it appears he only had a hand in filming Herbert Marshall’s operatic death sequence. With the studios aiming to cut back on employees after a brief post-war boom in production, Sternberg’s future in Hollywood appeared bleak, once again.
At first glance, Sternberg seemed an odd choice to direct Jet Pilot, a pet project of Howard Hughes’ which would highlight the sort of aerial filming seen in the eccentric producer’s classic early talkie Hell’s Angels. Fortunately, Sternberg would also be working with his old screenwriting partner Jules Furthman and the two men patched together a wry and lusty cold war entertainment. After defecting from the Soviets pilot Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh) is brought in for interrogation by Air Force officials. But when the stubborn Lieutenant balks at giving any new information about Russian planes, Major General Black (Jay C. Flippen) assigns Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) to seduce the sexy comrade. After impressing Anna with his flying prowess, Shannon sweeps her off for a romantic weekend in Palm Springs. The couple bickers about politics, but on the whole they find each other irresistible and Shannon thinks he is in love.
Just as the affair is getting hot and heavy, he is summonsed by the General. Shannon learns Anna is actually Olga Orlief, a spy planted by the Soviets. He is to escort her back to headquarters where she will be deported back to Russia. Shannon disobeys orders and marries Anna, instead. After learning she will probably be sent to prison, anyway, Shannon decides to defect to the Soviet Union with Anna. There, Shannon is disappointed to find Anna has reverted back to Olga who reveres Mother Russia and Communist politics. Colonel Shannon undergoes interrogation from the Army and Olga-Anna, but he is also unwilling to give up any military secrets. When Olga learns Shannon is being given drugs that will lead to brain damage, she helps arrange his escape unaware he is a double agent, too. On a high-tech Soviet jet, Anna flies Shannon out of harm’s way and back to the comforts of the free world.
Owing to the film’s right-wing politics and the fact Hughes sat on Jet Pilot for eight years, it has always suffered a bad reputation. But, as with Dishonored Sternberg takes an ironic view of the hackneyed material, transforming a by the numbers spy-thriller into a cosmic romance. Lacking Dietrich’s bedroom persona, Janet Leigh is not convincing as an exotic spy, but never has she looked so sexy or enticing. Sternberg transforms the wholesome-looking Leigh into a not-so innocent sex kitten who teases and torments the virile Wayne at every turn. The real and imagined sex between Anna and Shannon is refreshingly Continental. For many, it remains an offensive relic of the Cold War era, but when Jet Pilot finally saw the light of day in 1957 it resembled any number of perverse genre films being made by Douglas Sirk and Robert Aldrich. Still, the film’s modest success couldn’t resurrect Brooklyn Jo’s career for he had already burned the last of his bridges to Tinseltown.
Sternberg’s second film for Howard Hughes, the Asian noir Macao was much more up his alley. Here, Robert Mitchum plays Nick Cochran an opportunistic drifter looking to make a big stake before returning home to America. Upon landing in the Portugese outpost of Macao Nick has had his passport and cash stolen by good-time gal Julie Benson (Jane Russell). Hoping to avoid deportation, Nick tries to get a job in the casino of the shady Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter). But, the gambler suspects Cochran is a New York City cop sent to arrest him unaware the real policeman (William Bendix) is waiting in the wings.
Back in the familiar setting of the Far East, Sternberg took much care in presenting Chinese port as a wild and woolly wonderland for adults. Mitchum and Russell had already struck sparks in John Farrow’s comic noir His Kind of Woman and here, Sternberg turns up the heat between them considerably. Though hardly a woman of means, Julie actually looks down on the sloppy and slovenly Cochran and thinks nothing of taking advantage of him at every opportunity. Working for the crooked Halloran gives her the sort of independence where she can call her own shots. Nick is seduced by the seedy environment. Sheer greed entices him blow his winnings at a gambling table and lust makes him pant in the presence of a sexy local refugee (Gloria Grahame).
For a director who practically invented film noir, this beguiling project was a throwback to the days of Underworld and The Docks of New York. Rich in exotic atmosphere, Macao is a treat for the eye and a naughty entertainment from a filmmaker whose eclectic career was drawing quickly to a close.
Like fellow aesthete Murnau, Sternberg ultimately fled to the Far East to make what would be his final film, the Japanese production The Saga of AnatahanThe Saga of Anatahan. Near the end of WWII, a troop of twelve Japanese soldiers think are marooned on the deserted island of Anatahan, but they actually have neighbors in the persons of the lovely Keiko (Akemi Negeshi) and her man Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma). The soldiers try to keep up the appearance of a disciplined unit but ultimately they clash with Kusakabe over the sexually manipulative Keiko turning the peaceful island into a bloody battlefield of its own. Sternberg provided the fateful English narration to this story of a destructive femme fatale who brings down the men in her wake.
The Saga of Anatahan found the nearly sixty year old filmmaker coming full circle and makes for some rather chilling viewing. Upon Sternberg’s return to Hollywood there would be no more job offers from the industry he helped create, so Brooklyn Jo retired to write his delightful memoirs and teach film at the University of California.
Books on Sternberg:
Fun In a Chinese Laundry – Josef Von Sternberg **** Sternberg’s hilariously bombastic and arrogant autobiography eviscerates the unworthy and provides many revealing and painful episodes with la Dietrich. Essential reading for any serious cineaste. Out of print.
The Films of Josef Von Sternberg – Andrew Sarris ***** This slender but seminal collection of essays was originally prepared for a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of the director’s work in the ‘60s. Ranking among the critic’s finest work Sarris’ lush prose finds a worthy subject in Sternberg making this out of print volume well-worth tracking down.
Von Sternberg – John Baxter ****1/2 This is an enormously entertaining biography on a truly unpleasant person and master of the cinema. Culled from fifty years of notes and research Baxter delivers a first rate film study about one of the 20th century’s most eccentric geniuses.
The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg – John Baxter **** A splendid mix of biography, facts, and lucid criticism from the underrated film historian Baxter. If the price of his recent bio on Sternberg is out of your range then this is a most worthy substitute.
Sternberg – Peter Baxter (ed) *** An uneven collection of essays about and by the director. Critical luminaries Siegfried Krakauer, Rudolph Arnheim and Luc Mollet offer varying and often maddening views of the American cinema’s most iconoclastic visionary.
Films by Sternberg:
1925 The Salvation Hunters ***1/2
1927 Underworld ****
1927 The Last Command ****
1928 The Docks of New York ****
1929 Thunderbolt ***1/2
1929 The Blue Angel ****1/2
1930 Morocco ****
1931 An American Tragedy ***1/2
1931 Dishonored ****
1932 Shanghai Express *****
1932 Blonde Venus ****
1934 The Scarlet Empress *****
1935 The Devil Is a Woman ****1/2
1935 Crime and Punishment ****
1936 The King Steps Out ***1/2
1937 I, Claudius ***1/2 (incomplete)
1940 Sergeant Madden ***
1941 The Shanghai Gesture ****1/2
1950 Jet Pilot **** (released in 1957)
1952 Macao **** (reshoots by Nicholas Ray)
1953 The Saga of Anatahan ****