The DVD Report #644

Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, newly upgraded to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, features three of the Austrian-American director’s late silent films, 1927’s Underworld as well as 1928’s The Last Command and The Docks of New York.

Underworld, which won Ben Hecht the first Oscar given for Best Original Story, is celebrated both as the first film noir and the film that ushered in the gangster era. Hecht’s story was adapted by Chares Furthman and Robert N. Lee with a scenario by von Sternberg and Howard Hawks. Hecht, thinking the film would be a flop, wanted his name removed from the credits. Released in just one theatre in New York, the film was an unexpected hit, ushering in Hecht’s lengthy career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific writers.

George Bancroft shared star billing as the boisterous gangster kingpin “Bull” Weed with Evelyn Brent as his moll “Feathers,” and Clive Brook as the drunken former lawyer “Rolls Royce,” whom he rehabilitates. Brook, best known for his stiff upper lip Britishers from 1933’s Cavalcade to 1963’s The List of Adrian Messenger, is the revelation here, stealing every scene he’s in as he goes from bum to gentleman with seeming ease. It’s rollicking good fun from start to finish.

The Last Command is one of two films for which Emil Jannings won the first Oscar given for Best Actor, the other being the long lost The Way of All Flesh.

Jannings plays a former Imperial Russian general and cousin of the Czar who ends up as an extra in Hollywood playing a general in a movie directed by an old adversary in the revolution that deposed him. William Powell, in an equally fine performance, is the director and the ever-glamorous Evelyn Brent is the film within the film’s leading actress. The film is based on Ernst Lubitsch’s discovery while filming 1927’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg that one of the extras playing a general in his film was a former real-life general he knew in his previous life.

The Docks of New York failed to score any Oscar nominations at the second Academy Awards, but the film’s stars, George Bancroft and Betty Compson, were in contention that year for their performances in other films, Bancroft for Thunderbolt and Compson for The Barker.

Bancroft and Compson are terrific here, he as a rough and ready stoker, she as a disillusioned prostitute. Gustav von Seyffertitz (Dishonored) as sleazy preacher “Hymn Book Harry” and Olga Baclanova (Freaks) as a disillusioned sailor’s wife lend strong support. Many consider this von Sternberg’s finest film. It is certainly one of the most beautifully photographed, right up there with Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress.

Aside from Criterion, Kino Lorber is the dominant force in releasing both vintage films and more recent theatrical releases on Blu-ray. Current releases include those that range from the 1940s to the 1990s, The Queen of Spades, The Mind Benders, Billy Bathgate, and Un Coeur en Hiver.

Alexander Pushkin, who died in a duel with his wife’s lover in 1837 at the age of 37, wrote the short story The Queen of Spades, upon which Thorold Dickinson’s 1949 film is based, in 1834.

Dickinson, who had directed Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in the 1940 British version of Gaslight, was brought to the project by Walbrook who plays the film’s lead. Filmed between Walbrook’s legendary performances in The Red Shoes and La Ronde, the actor was at the top of his craft here as well playing a card fanatic who murders an elderly countess for the secret at winning for which she has reportedly sold her soul to the devil. She’s played by Edith Evans in her first film since 1916 for which she was runner-up to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress at the New York Film Critics’ annual awards.

Walbrook and Evans are extraordinary in their cat and mouse games, ably supported by Ronald Howard (Leslie Howard’s son), Anthony Dawson, and Yvonne Mitchell. George Auric’s score and Otto Heller’s cinematography are as important to the film’s success as its cast.

Two years after directing him in Victim, director Basil Dearden (Sapphire) directed Dirk Bogarde in another acclaimed performance as the crusading scientist in 1963’s The Mind Benders.

After a colleague who experimented in sensory deprivation commits suicide after passing secrets to the Communists, Bogarde’s character sets out to prove that his friend was brainwashed by putting himself through the same technique. The result is devastating but ultimately satisfying as his post-experiment behavior puts his marriage at risk. Bogarde gets excellent support from Mary Ure as his wife, John Clements as a government official, and Michael Bryant as a third crusading scientist.

Adapted from a novel by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) and directed by Robert Benton (Places in the Heart), 1991’s Billy Bathgate, starring Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Steven Hill, Loren Dean, Bruce Willis, and Steve Buscemi, should have been a bigger hit.

The life and times of a gangster (Hoffman) as seen through the eyes of a young apprentice (Dean) may have been one gangster film too many following the 1990 successes of GoodFellas, The Godfather: Part III, and Miller’s Crossing as well as its contemporaneous release Bugsy. Still, Kidman was nominated for a Golden Globe playing Hoffman’s amoral wife and Hill was in the running for several major critics’ awards for his low-keyed portrayal of Hoffman’s lawyer.

1992’s Un Coeur en Hiver also known as A Heart in Winter, is a romantic drama about a violin virtuoso in her late twenties (Emanuelle Béart) who is torn between two men in their forties, a violin craftsman (Daniel Auteuil) and his boss, a violin shop owner (André Dussollier). Making numerous best-of-year lists, the film’s plot is almost non-existent, though there is some mystery as to whose heart it is that is “in winter”.

This week’s new releases include the diverse titles, The Swan Princess and Lust in the Dust.

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