The Story of a Girl...Good Enough to Betray...But Not Good Enough to Marry.
A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.
A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.
Phillips Holmes Sylvia Sidney Frances Dee Irving Pichel Frederick Burton Claire McDowell Wallace Middleton Emmett Corrigan Charles Middleton Lucille La Verne Al Hart Fanny Midgley Arnold Korff Russ Powell Ed Brady Richard Cramer Claire Dodd Robert Dudley George Irving Arline Judge Nella Walker William Bailey Martin Cichy James Durkin Elizabeth Forrester Sherry Hall Evelyn Pierce Vivian Winston
Una tragedia humana, Amerikai tragédia, Una tragedia americana, Uma Tragédia Americana
Rare start of week watch as the Powerhouse Blu Ray arrived today and been waiting years to tick this off the list. Also if anyone will have/has this UK release and cover... Really surprised to see Christopher Walken* was that old and was in this.
So Phillips Holmes (who looks like Christopher Walken on the drawn poster but not in the film), escapes town when his friend kills a kid in a hit and run. He is found working in a hotel by his rich uncle, who takes him away, starts him up in his factory and introduces him to high society; where he falls in love with a rich society girl - Frances Dee. One problem, as he has…
Sternberg turning what is social forces on Dreiser's novel into pure damnation. There's a moment when he films the lake when one can sense the true call of death. Sternberg's An American Tragedy is deterministic on its own way as Dreiser's only the push that guides Holmes social climber towards the death row is very different. The long trial section is anti-ethical to all of Sternberg's strengths as an artist and it stops the film dead for some 20 minutes, but otherwise this very underrated, very expressive film.
After being a passenger during a hit and run accident, creepy coward Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) flees to another city where he uses a connection with a wealthy relative to become a manager of a business. He starts hitting on Roberta (Sylvia Sidney), an employee almost immediately despite the potential consequences to their employment, and quickly ditches her as soon as she is pregnant for Sondra (Frances Dee) a more upper class woman. Tragedy ensues.
Though An American Tragedy is often visually striking thanks to von Sternberg, it is almost entirely lacking in narrative tension. The lead performance by Holmes is almost entirely listless and the story unfolds in a strange, matter of fact way that feels as though it…
I was eager to see this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's famous 1925 novel, especially since it's less well-known that the later version ("A Place in the Sun" with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift). Not to mention that von Sternberg directed and it has a favorite 1930s star of mine, Sylvia Sidney. But mostly a disappointment, although not without its moments.
Part of the problem has to do with the history of the production. Apparently Sergei Eisenstein was slated to direct as his first American feature (Now THAT would've been interesting). But once it was passed to von Sternberg, he intentionally scuttled the critique of American capitalism and the futility of class strivings that Eisenstein, as well as Dreiser in his…
“I could have saved her.”
Josef Von Sternberg doing a message film? Von Sternberg thinking he knows better than Theodore Dreiser and reinterpreting his novel to explicitly focus on—what he apparently sees as—an unintentional drowning by a sexually repressed social ladder climber? Dreiser was pissed.
Von Sternberg may not have fully grasped Dreiser’s overarching themes, but he makes it into his own little murder and morality tale. There’s only so much you can show, even in a 1931 film, so I’m not going to knock Von Sternberg too much for not being more explicit about Clyde’s complex, murderous character being informed by a mix of poverty, Christian fundamentalism and depression era scrabble-or-die capitalism.
But none of this plays to Von…
It is a cruel and dark film in establishing provocative and implacable conditions in a visible insistence of moral unease adding a complex treatment to the themes set in a simple script that takes the essence of a parable emphasizing a reiterative moral teaching, undertakes a daring exercise clearly falling in a circle without resolving those propositions that without an attentive exploration of the events is lost leaving a disconnected third act giving rise to an unnecessarily soporific extended rhythm. Yet the uncomfortable perversity leaves a vast space to express regrets of irreversible actions opening a participatory behavior in honesty game.
Feels like one of those strong, authoritative, foundational texts from 1931 that set templates for future filmmakers to follow... except this one doesn't come with a genre attached, so it never earned the iconic status of a Frankenstein or a Public Enemy.
Right from the beginning, with the 1931 hot-jazz playing over the credits, Von Sternberg foregrounds the modernist elements of the story, playing up the irony of that word 'tragedy' in the title. Class distinctions have evolved, and the nobility of the (classically-defined) tragic hero no longer exists; beyond that, the movie repeatedly highlights the ways this 'tragedy' is reproduced and sensationalized in news-cycle media. Tragedy in the era of mechanical reproduction...
Like, sure, it’s far from the prettiest or tidiest picture you’ll ever see, but I’m always amazed at how firm a grasp Sternberg had on the cinematic language, how fluently and effortlessly he spoke it, and how confidently he spackled his films with small and seemingly inconsequential—but nevertheless unconventional—details, bringing them to life in ways that almost register subconsciously. We’re in the Sound Era now, but Sternberg pictures at the advent (including this one), unlike many of his peers’, never felt encumbered by an unwritten obligation to overcommit to the change and charge headfirst into something unfamiliar. He continues to utilize silence—or, more accurately, the absence of words—only now as a punctuation, rather than a limitation, like e.g. Clyde…
Sylvia Sidney was stunning in her role as Roberta. Sadly Phillips Holmes in the lead as the troubled Clyde Griffiths didn't match her presence. Holmes came across hollow and empty which close to killed any sympathy for his character. And just every actor over-powered him with their performances. In way I guess thats what director Sternberg wanted as to show that Clyde's was a weak man, but without much else going for him in his role it left something to be desired. Still a good movie.
”Good enough to betray, but not good enough to marry!”
The Criterion Channel blurb for this film says it “represents a fascinating meeting of the serious-minded Dreiser and the decadent aesthete Sternberg’s antithetical sensibilities.” The problem is - the best qualities of both seem to have been lost in the process. Dreiser sued. Von Sternberg disowned it.
That’s not to say the picture doesn’t have its merits. Von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes achieve some gorgeous compositions of texture and light - the blinds of the collar factory creating the illusion of a cage or Phillips Holmes and Sylvia Sidney caught in a web of tree branch shadows.
There’s also a raw ugliness to the proceedings (in stark contrast to…
I suppose we may call it a warning against moral ambiguity, but whatever the framework of its intent, I think its lopsided balance of appetites is subservient to the complex characterizations themselves; almost Biblical losers in their climb for worldly pleasures, attempted class jumping, and dismissing the power of societal taboos. Von Sternberg's simmering pot smells of Christian zealot myopia, gender inequality, economic disability, and the bubbling poisons of an American system praised as open to opportunity if one dedicates oneself ruthlessly to its attainment--with the unspoken caveat that frailty brings ruin like Moses brings frogs.
The court sequence was a film in itself. Irving Pichel, a prosecutor for the ages. AAT boasted courageous temporal editing which may not have been lost on more modern auteurs.
Long and extremely dry court trial in the final act dragged things down a lot unfortunately. Also Holmes as lead had no presence and was outmatched by everyone basically. But everything before that trial was actually great, it was wonderfully cold and grim. Sylvia Sidney is terrific as always and there's some nice directorial flourishes in the first hour but shame even Sternberg couldn't flare up that court trial.