A criminal known as Thunderbolt is imprisoned and facing execution. Into the next cell is placed Bob Moran, an innocent man who has been framed and who is in love with Thunderbolt's girl. ... See full summary »
Film told in flashbacks of an older man's obsession for a woman who can belong to no-one but can frustrate everyone. The backdrop is SternbergÍs surreal and fantastic Carnaval in Spain. In ... See full summary »
Josef von Sternberg
Edward Everett Horton
A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by "Mother" Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy ... See full summary »
Nick Cochran, an American in exile in Macao, has a chance to restore his name by helping capture an international crime lord. Undercover, can he mislead the bad guys and still woo the handsome singer/petty crook, Julie Benson?
Josef von Sternberg,
Wrong director tries hard, Sylvia Sidney comes off best
Originally this adapation of the Dreiser novel was planned by Sergei Eisenstein, during the Hollywood jaunt that also led to Que Viva Mexico, and his version might have been a cracked masterpiece-- one can imagine him getting all kind of details about the American scene ludicrously wrong, but finding a real connection between Dreiser's depiction of a weak youth whose desire for wealth and comfort sends him on an assembly line to murder, and Eisenstein's own mechanistic editing style and view of capitalism's destructiveness.
Von Sternberg, on the other hand, was the master of knowing sexual politics and intrigue, at his best with characters whose illusions had been left behind many beds ago. Given a Classics Illustrated-level cutdown of the book, and a stiff (if straight out of an Arrow shirt ad) leading man in Phillips Holmes, there's little for him to get hold of here, except for a few scenes in which Sylvia Sidney manages to convey the poignance of a poor girl in a bad spot, losing her boy and helpless to prevent it. There are some reasonably effective scenes between Holmes and Sidney, some nice chiaroscuro from Lee Garmes (though alas, even UCLA's restoration does not look as good as the clips I saw at Cinesation in the 1932 Paramount promo film The House That Shadows Built), and the courtroom scenes, though way over the top (not helped by Irving Pichel's too-perfect E- Nun-Cee-I-A-Shun), are dramatic-- it's fun seeing him defended by Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton, in that inimitable voice. But you can't really say it works, or does Dreiser justice-- and I'm not sure any movie could.
The problem with Dreiser's passive characters is that on screen their plights may be involving, but they aren't; we don't get the interior life that the novel gives us, we just see the story of an ineffectual sap making a couple of bad mistakes and getting ground to dust by the wheels of modern society. James Cain's crime novels took the Dreiser- style story and put guilt and cunning back into the main characters' makeup, so they have things to do on screen-- and they know WHY they're doomed. Seeing Sternberg fail to find anything interesting enough to work with here makes you wish Eisenstein had made this film, and Sternberg had had the chance to sink his teeth into The Postman Always Rings Twice or Serenade.
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