Before movies made the shift to sound, there were visionary directors in the 1920s who made silence golden. Turned on by the possibilities of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton, and Sergei Eisenstein pushed the limits of lighting, camera movement, editing, and mimed emotion to create thrillers, melodramas, and comedies that still feel fresh. Thanks to Criterion’s terrific new box set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, we can add the director best known for his delirious collaborations with Marlene Dietrich to the pantheon. It’s one of the best DVD releases of the year and a must for anyone remotely interested film history or dazzling filmmaking.
1927’s Underworld — starring George Bancroft as a good-hearted thug and Dietrich-precursor Evelyn Brent as his moll — popularized the gangster genre and clearly influenced Howard Hawks, who lifted the final shootout for Scarface. In 1928’s The Last Command, Emil Jannings plays a once-powerful Russian general reduced to scrounging for extra work in an indifferent Hollywood. His story is told in a long flashback of the final days of Czarist Russia, with William Powell and Brent as revolutionaries. The obsessive themes of the Dietrich films — lust, betrayal, and humiliation — are thrillingly realized. Bancroft plays a sailor wooing Betty Compson’s prostitute in 1928’s romantic melodrama The Docks of New York, which daringly mixes narrative and visual abstraction. (A suicide attempt is shown as a silhouette reflected on undulating water and a splash.) As usual with Criterion, the films look clean and rich. The EXTRAS include a book of smart essays and a 1968 interview with a crusty von Sternberg. A