Josef von Sternberg | Underworld
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Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg is a great filmmaker, whose works are notable
for their extraordinary visual beauty.
Sternberg's remarkable command of film technique has inspired several studies:
These works are some of the most detailed studies of film technique ever published.
- The idea of the image: Josef von Sternberg's
Dietrich films (1989) by Carole Zucker examines Sternberg's
composition, staging and camera technique.
- Master Space (1992) by Barbara Bowman is a detailed study of
the use of film space in the staging of Sternberg and other 1930's directors.
- Dressing the part: Sternberg, Dietrich and Costume (1993) by Sybil DelGaudio
looks at the use of costumes in Sternberg's films.
Some common subjects in the films of Sternberg:
- Doctors (Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus)
- Industrial locations with men workers (docks: The Salvation Hunters,
movie studio: The Last Command, ship stoker: The Docks of New York) related
(police switchhboard: Underworld)
- Industrial locations with women workers and male bosses (box factory: An American Tragedy,
cigarette factory: The Devil Is a Woman, casino: Macao)
- Trains (The Last Command, Shanghai Express, The Devil Is a Woman)
- Women who sacrifice themselves sexually to help men (freeing hostage: Shanghai Express,
paying for operation: Blonde Venus)
- Women kissing women (The Docks of New York, Morocco)
- Evils of gambling (gambling addiction: The Shanghai Gesture,
casino is crooked, exploits casino workers: Macao) related (Pallette as constant bettor: Shanghai Express)
- Courtrooms (murder trial: Underworld, finale: The Docks of New York,
free politics: The Town)
- Death row jail cells (Underworld, Thunderbolt)
- Sympathetic ministers who support poor and tough characters (Hymn Book Harry: The Docks of New York,
- Heroes in uniform (The Last Command, Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express,
The Devil Is a Woman)
- Soldiers in formation (The Last Command, opening with Horton: The Devil Is a Woman)
- Border-like checks by guards (Shanghai Express, The Devil Is a Woman)
- Streamers (party: Underworld, Carnival in Spain: The Devil Is a Woman)
- Pictures framed and on wall, in geometric patterns (Dietrich's room: Morocco,
agent's office with show biz pictures: Blonde Venus)
- Staircases (outside to apartment building: Underworld, in movie studio: The Last Command,
to war lord's office: Shanghai Express)
- Ladders (docks: The Salvation Hunters, ship interior, pier: The Docks of New York)
- Camels (Morocco, Shanghai Express)
- Mirrors (dressing room: The Last Command)
- Murals or wall paintings (graffiti in ship: The Docks of New York, dining room: The Shanghai Gesture)
- Writing on cars (The Salvation Hunters, General's car: The Last Command)
- Arches with peaked tops and rounded sides (Morocco, opening with troops: The Devil Is a Woman)
- Circles (lights in dressing room: The Last Command, arcs in night club: Blonde Venus,
casino wheel and rings around it: The Shanghai Gesture, arches: Macao)
- Large wheels (background in street: The Last Command, ship's wheel in saloon: The Docks of New York)
- Spirals (shot through bed stand: The Docks of New York)
Underworld (1927) is a pioneering gangster film.
While Underworld is often cited as the first gangster film, its depiction of gangsters, crime and criminal life
are often different from other films. One can contrast the criminal world in Underworld, with
three other widespread models of the criminal underworld and gangsters in other books and films:
SPOILER. Bull does kill another criminal. But not because the two men are criminal rivals,
but rather because the other man assaulted Bull's girlfriend. This makes it different from the gangland
killings in most later gangster movies.
- Underworld differs from many of the gangster films of the 1930's, in that its protagonist
is a bank robber, rather than a bootlegger. Because of this, Bull Weed hardly has a gang,
at least that we can see on screen, but rather just a few henchmen.
Bootleggers, in plays like Broadway (1926) and films like Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932),
are constantly battling other gangsters over turf. Bull doesn't seem to have any turf.
Nor does he control any civilian institution, from night clubs to whole cities, unlike later movie gangsters.
Bull also does not seem to be a well-known public figure, unlike Al Capone or the later movie mobsters.
Bull has the fancy clothes and girlfriend of later movie gangsters, but not the empire or organization.
- Early films about so-called "gangsters", like Raoul Walsh's Regeneration (1915),
showed members of two-bit street corner gangs in the slums who engaged in sordid crime. Bull Weed is clearly a much bigger operator
than these early gangsters, pulling off huge bank robbery jobs, and living a life of wealth.
- The Dreamland Cafe, where Bull and other crooks hang out, is also a small, shabby dump,
compared to the glitzy, giant nightclubs in later crime films. It recalls the depiction of "the underworld" in books
like The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (Frank L. Packard, 1915-1916) and
The Snarl of the Beast (Carroll John Daly, 1927). The "underworld" in such writers consisted of
secretive crooks engaged in burglary or fencing, who hung out together at small, little-known cheap dives out of
sight of the general public. This conception of the "underworld" is much less well known today,
but it seems to be an influence on Sternberg's Underworld.
Links to the Western
The early scene in the Dreamland Cafe, has rival crooks Bull and Buck Mulligan threatening to shoot it out with guns.
The scene recalls the saloon shoot-outs in countless Westerns. It is like a Western drama, transposed to a modern speakeasy.
The Western imagery does not seem to be sustained, though. Later scenes of gangster life in Underworld,
as far as I can tell, seem less in Western mode.
The early scenes in Underworld emphasize technology:
However, as Underworld goes on, such technological aspects seem to disappear.
Bull does note how hard it would be to break through the secret door to the warehouse.
- Bull uses explosives (and lots of them) to rob the bank.
- The police have a large switchboard, manned by uniformed cops.
- The police use motorcycles.
The switchboard, with its elaborate machinery and several workers, also recalls the industrial locales in other Sternberg films.
It is perhaps more a site of industrial age labor, than the pure exercise in technology found in so many crime books and films.
Clive Brook plays an educated man, who loves to read books. In Shanghai Express, he will play a doctor.
Friendship across Classes
Bull becomes friends with a middle class man he sponsors, Rolls Royce. Friendship between a tough working class man
and a smooth, handsome, educated man is a staple in the stories of Dashiell Hammett,
famously in "The Big Knockover" (1927) and The Glass Key (1930). In Hammett, such friendships often
have homoerotic overtones. It is unclear if the Bull-Rolls relationship in Underworld does or not.
In Hammett, the educated man tends to work directly for the working class man, as part of his organization:
the tough detective in "The Big Knockover" has the educated young man as his partner; the corrupt civic boss in The Glass Key
has educated Ned Beaumont as as spokesperson and agent. By contrast, Rolls Royce in Underworld is mainly a friend,
rather than a member of Bull's gang, although he does give Bull an idea for framing a rival.
Another difference: in Hammett, the tough working class man tends to be much older than the young educated one.
In Underworld, tough Bull is played by George Bancroft, age 44, while Rolls Royce is Clive Brook, age 39:
much closer in ages. (Sternberg himself was around 33 when Underworld was shot.)
We see the first meeting of Bull and Rolls Royce, and their relationship goes through several stages.
In this it resembles the man-woman romances that are nearly universal in Hollywood films.
By contrast, the relationship of Bull and his girlfriend Feathers was pre-established off screen before the start of the film,
and undergoes little development or change through the film.
This suggests that there might be aspects of a "romance" to the Bull - Rolls Royce relationship.
The makeover of Clive Brook from down-and-outer in the slums to fashion plate is spectacular.
It draws on the considerable skills of both Sternberg and Hollywood with costuming.
Such transformations preceded Underworld: see From the Submerged (Theodore Wharton, 1912).
One of the most effective is in Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), in which a tramp turns into Andy Garcia.
Also see: Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928),
Alexander Gray in the "Dusty Shoes" finale of Moonlight and Pretzels (choreographer: Bobby Connolly, 1933).
The Last Command
The Last Command (1928) draws some of its plot inspiration
from two films in which Emil Jannings also starred: Lubitsch's
Madame Dubarry (1920), and Murnau's The Last Laugh
(1924). It shares the word "Last" in its title with
Murnau's film, and the plot of a man whose self esteem comes from
wearing a fancy uniform, and being broken in spirit when he is
forced to give it up.
Its portrait of the Russian Revolution of 1917 seems based on Lubitsch's
portrait of the French Revolution of 1789 in Madame Dubarry.
The Last Command seems completely indifferent
to the issue of capitalism vs. communism, that rightly dominates
most historical accounts of the Russian Revolution. It is not
even mentioned in the film. Instead, it paints a portrait of arrogant,
abusive aristocrats vs. howling, revenge minded, low brow mobs.
This approach is a cliché of French Revolution books and
movies, and seems to be nearly all the filmmakers are interested in.
Sternberg and his colleagues clearly had no comprehension of the
"dictatorship of the proletariat", or all that would
mean for the 20th Century. They show Russia disintegrating into
mob rule and violent anarchy, as if these were the worst things
that could happen to a country. The concept of the Soviet Union
as the birthplace of 20th Century totalitarianism was completely
alien to them. So while they are in no way supportive of the Russian
Revolution, they do not understand its consequences, either.
Herman J. Mankiewicz's titles also make many bitter references
to the Czar's conduct of World War I. These are also in the pacifist
tradition of bitter criticism of that war, that was popular in
the 1920's. This criticism shows up in many, many American authors
of the period, and has nothing to do with the subject of communism.
Sternberg sees Hollywood as being similarly composed of all powerful
aristocrats at the top - the directors - and a proletarian mob
below - the mass of poverty stricken extras. But his greatest
opprobrium is reserved for neither the cruel, capricious directors
or the brutalized extras, but for the army of yes men and assistants
in between. These assistants toady up to the directors above them,
and mistreat and are contemptuous of the poor extras below.
Film as an Industry
Sternberg's portrait of the film industry is unique, too. The
operative word here is industry. Sternberg depicts it as an industrial
process. The humans who enter it are put through a system as relentless
as one of Henry Ford's assembly lines. From checking into the
studio gates, to wardrobe to action on the set, they are both
the raw material and the factory workers of the finished film
product. In the 1950's Fritz Lang will
open Clash By Night with a mini documentary about a fish
canning factory, following the fish on their inexorable processing
from catch to canned food. A similar inexorable process of fate
will grind up the human characters in the film that follows. Sternberg's
film here as much of the same feel. However, Sternberg does not
ascribe it to fate. The industrial operation of Hollywood filmmaking
is clearly the product of human choices. Sternberg also repeatedly
compares the film set to an army, with the gestures of director
William Powell echoing the gestures of General Emil Jannings earlier
in the film.
The chief visual motif of the actual film set are
lathe constructions; we see many boxes, platforms and set fragments
made out of thin wooden boards. This low tech construction is
intermixed with high tech camera and lighting equipment. I have
no idea how this looked to audiences in 1928: whether the wood
looked as primitive to them as it does to me today. The overall
set looks both very complex, and yet a bit simpler than the elaborate
grid shown in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), twenty
years later: my next major point of reference to what a film set
The Last Command is composed of Acts, and shows a well
planned dramatic arc. The two opening sequences are essentially
entrances: in the first, Jannings shows up as an extra in Hollywood,
and arrives at a film studio to work on a picture; in the second,
Jannings arrives as a Russian general to review troops in 1917.
The mid section of the picture then follows, focusing on Jannings'
affair with Evelyn Brent, heroine of three Sternberg films, and
already a veteran silent actress. Then come the two dramatic climaxes.
In the first, Jannings encounters the Russian Revolution on and
near a train. This is one of Sternberg's great set pieces. Next
comes a flash forward to modern times, and Jannings' work on the
picture within a picture. This second climax is almost as spectacular
as the first, and brings the film to a remarkable end. Both of
the climaxes are the most emotion laden parts of the film.
Sternberg's use of camera movement in The Last Command
is more sporadic than in other directors with his pictorial skill.
There are some spectacular camera movements, but the majority
of the shots are static compositions. The traveling shots tend
to be forceful, intense, fast moving progressions along a straight
path: down a banquet table, a review pass a line of troops, a
track pass a mob. They tend to be done for an intense emotional
effect, an effect of delirious force, and to be part of dramatic
climaxes for a scene. They are part of an over all emotional plan
of a scene which tends to include many static camera setups. They
do not tend to be visually exploratory, as they are in George Cukor,
or a consistent way of looking at the world, as in Mizoguchi or
Murnau. Instead, camera movement is part of Sternberg's film language,
something he can deploy apparently at will. Later Sternberg films,
such as Blonde Venus, will employ camera movement more
systematically. Such works are the models for the later films
of Mizoguchi Kenji and Max Ophuls,
and the fountainheads of their style.
Composition: Vertical Lines
Sternberg's style of composition here centers around jutting vertical
lines. Often times these are the Russian soldiers in the film,
standing stiffly erect. Sternberg is good at grouping these to
form series of separate vertical lines throughout the shot. Another
shot shows the Hollywood extras making up as soldiers in the dressing
room, each next to his rifle; the shot is a riot of vertical rifles
standing straight up, with bayonets pointing skyward on each gun.
Dishonored (1931) is a spy story of World War I. Its plot
somewhat recalls that of Rex Ingram's Mare Nostrum (1926).
Both films focus on a beautiful woman who spies for the Austrian-German
side; both are ultimately based on the real life story of Mata
Hari, the glamorous spy. In both films the woman is executed by
firing squad, also like the real life Mata Hari. Both include
a similar incident in which she insists on being shot while wearing
her glamorous clothes, calling them "the uniform in which
I served my country". Sternberg's disciple Curtis Harrington
will also make an outstanding film entitled Mata Hari (1985),
thus completing the cycle.
Sternberg's dramatic sense often recalls that of Ingram in general.
Both directors' films mix delirious portraits of dramatic historical
events, with personal romantic melodramas. Both evoke intense
emotion. Both follow events over long periods of time, with many
changes of fortune for their characters. Both directors visit
many exotic locations. The slow paced pictorialism of both directors
is somewhat similar, although Sternberg is a much greater creator
of images. Both have similar heroes in their films: these tend
to be glamorous macho men wearing fancy military uniforms. Antonio
Moreno's sea captain in Mare Nostrum anticipates such uniformed
Sternberg heroes as Gary Cooper in Morocco (1931) and Clive
Brook in Shanghai Express (1932). Sternberg's heroes will
be overwhelmingly attracted to the heroines of those movies, just
as Moreno is in Mare Nostrum.
Mare Nostrum has a forceful pacifist message, and a mountain
of guilt and angst for its hero. It is in the tradition of such
scathing looks at World War I espionage as Frances Marion's The
Love Light (1921), a grim film in which romance is also sordidly
betrayed by espionage activity. By contrast, Sternberg's film
is much more light hearted. Consequently, Sternberg's film is
a lot more fun, even if it is much less politically insightful.
Still, the pacifist orientation of Mare Nostrum is consistent
with the anti-war commentary in Sternberg's The Last Command,
and Sternberg's distaste for the war lords in Shanghai Express.
Both Sternberg and Ingram employ satire to convey the distaste
and disgust they feel for people who conduct wars.
Feminism and Women's Problems
Blonde Venus (1932) is structured as an expose of the problems
faced by women. We see lecherous men, harassing employers, men
who live off women financially, men who hire women to be their
mistresses, courts who take children away from adulterous women,
police who hound women in custody battles, and a self righteous
male world that sees little value in women or their activities.
Such a feminist point of view returns strongly in Mizoguchi.
Blonde Venus contains far more black people than any other
Sternberg film. The film takes place all over the United States,
from New York City to Galveston, and everywhere that Marlene Dietrich
goes she encounters black people. None of the blacks is highly
educated, or members of a professional class, so the film does
not have much in common with modern depictions of African-Americans.
However, the black people in the film are some of the most sympathetically
depicted in any 1930's movie. They are shown as kind hearted,
shrewd, skilled, hard working and highly energetic. All of this
is in welcome contradiction to the stereotypes of blacks that
often appeared in old Hollywood movies.
The depiction of blacks
has much in common with Sternberg's sympathetic depictions of
working women in An American Tragedy and Macao.
Both groups are seen as a working proletariat, a group of hard
working people at the bottom of the social ladder. Neither has
much money or power, and none have any upper class mannerisms.
Camera Movement along Paths
This film features several long camera movements tied to architecture.
In these Marlene Dietrich moves slowly along a staircase, aisle
or corridor, while the camera tracks her. She and the camera follow a
path. Often there are elaborate
objects in front of the camera's view, such as the palms in the
musical number XXX. The background is also most elaborate and
Sternberg tends to move his camera in both directions
along this path:
One can see such similar bi-directional tracks along staircases in filmmakers
Sternberg influenced, such as Kenji Mizoguchi
and Max Ophuls.
- In the musical number, Marlene first moves all
the way to the right along the path. Then she reverses her steps,
and moves back left along the shot. This allows Sternberg to recreate
the traveling shot in reverse.
- Similarly, at the Galveston bar where Marlene and the cop have a
beer, they first ascend the staircase
to their table. After their conversation, they descend the same
staircase, with Sternberg's camera creating the earlier tracking
shot in reverse.
Episodic Story Structure
The episodic structure of Blonde Venus also returns in
Ophuls and Mizoguchi. The events take place over many months or
even years, and represent different stages in the heroine's life.
This is a familiar structure in the work of these Sternberg disciples.
The backgrounds and walls in Blonde Venus and many other
Sternberg films are extremely complex. Often, nearly every square
inch of the walls are covered by objects. These form complex visual
patterns. For example, the agent's office is full of framed show
biz pictures. Their endlessly repeating rectilinear compositions
recall the geometric paintings of Mondrian. They also anticipate
the rectilinear compositions of Ozu. Each
photo is of a different size, and they are arranged in a complex
irregular pattern on the wall.
Similarly, the dressing room is full of women's costumes on the
wall. These are hanging on hooks, sitting on shelves, and just
leaning against the wall, including one prop on a long pole. Cary
Grant picks up and manipulates this pole: it recalls all the similar
long rifles and bayonets used by the male extras in The Last
Command. Such poles are phallic symbols. Mizoguchi will similarly
include a long fishing pole in Osaka Elegy (1936). The
women's costumes all have a 3D effect, although they are nearly
flat, and mainly parallel to the wall. This is the equivalent
of a frieze, a combination of 3D effects with a basically 2D surface.
Cubist artists, such as Picasso, and their Russian Constructivist
heirs had made the frieze one of the most popular formats of early
Modern Art. Such friezes show up in many sets in Blonde Venus,
including the night club set, and the heroine's apartment.
The night club where Dietrich sings "Hot Voodoo" is
similarly festooned with every possible decorative object. Many
of these are plants. When Sternberg photographs the club, the
people in the foreground are usually in clear focus. But often
times, the background objects are not. They instead form a complex
pattern of light and shade, in which individual objects cannot
be discerned clearly. Sometimes a plant shape will be clear, such
as a palm leaf or an aroid leaf, but otherwise, the entire background
composition will be an abstract pattern. The abstract pattern
is full of shapes that suggest night club decoration, but
the exact objects will be unclear.
Even the plants in the foreground will often be in silhouette.
The front of the image will be festooned with plant leaves, which
hang down from the top of the frame. Sometimes these will be photographed
literally; other times they will appear as black silhouettes.
When silhouetted, they are still recognizable as plant shapes,
but they have taken one step towards abstraction, becoming a pure
outline of black. Sternberg loves objects in the foreground of
his images, and this will be one of the most recurring features
of his visual style.
Sternberg also includes portrait shots of Cary Grant, and of the
night club owner O'Connor. Both of these are medium shots, and
capture their subject men in languid repose, very effective for
character building and moody meditation. Both images are full
of pure abstraction in the background. The lighting effects behind
O'Connor are a full piece of Abstract Art, made up out of light.
The background is full of irregular streaks of light and shadow,
complex arcs and patterns of light. It is an awesome effect. Some
of this imagery is probably soft focus photography of objects
in the background of the night club; the rest is probably pure
painting with light.
A shot of Cary Grant and three other men seated at their table
is also fascinating. A set of circular arcs in the background
represent the elaborate night club set. We cannot see the composition
of these arcs with any clear focus; they are bathed in Sternberg's
shimmering abstractions of light and shadow. But we can see their
essentially circular forms. These vertical circles are echoed
by the horizontal circle of the table in the foreground below.
The circular regions in the background are made up of many irregular objects,
but some of the circular bands are clearly much lighter or darker
than the others. The lightest colored rings are in a group behind
Cary Grant. These are in a group in the center of the composition.
To both their left and right are darker colored circular regions.
It is in front of these darker circles that the other men are
sitting, as well as the one female night club patron in the shot.
Cary Grant also has extra light on him. His unique position in
the lighter region highlights him, and makes him the center of
attraction in the shot. His association with the circles gives
him an almost magical quality. It suggests he has many exciting
powers and personality characteristics. Sternberg's men often
are given such glamorous abilities.
This circular composition recalls the circular casinos to come
in Macao and The Shanghai Gesture.
Macao (1952) was Sternberg's last Hollywood film. It
does not have a big reputation today. But Macao looks astonishingly
beautiful, in the best Sternberg tradition. Sternberg's visual
effects are a matter of composition. These compositions are achieved
through careful set design, camera placement, and lighting.
Architecture and Circles: The Casino
A set with unusual visual fascination is that of the casino. The
set is full of huge semi-circular arches, leading into other rooms.
No matter where Sternberg points his camera, one or more of these
arches will be in the picture, as its most prominent feature.
This gives a mathematical, geometric element to the composition.
They are usually contrasted with a large group of people seated
around a gambling table in the lower portion of the image. These
people are as linear in their arrangement as the upper arches
are circular. Strong geometric elements are a cornerstone of these
compositions. Also noteworthy in the casino: the circular opening
framing Jane Russell and the musicians when they perform. This
too is a circular geometric element.
The upper stories of the casino are full of railed openings, leading
to the lower floors. I have never seen anything else like this,
in any other movie. This means that when shooting on the upper
floor, one is constantly seeing openings leading below, and circular
arch openings leading to other rooms. Both the circles and the
openings seem like female symbols. The fact that all the croupiers
seem to be female adds to this impression, as does the way in
which Russell seems to be in charge of the night club area and
entertainment. This gives the entire casino a female aspect. The
film's other chief female character, the croupier Gloria Grahame,
also presides in the casino. We seem to be in a female realm.
Brad Dexter: The Boss and his Office
There is a man in charge of the casino, its owner, the villainous
Brad Dexter, as Andrew Sarris dubbed him. He is rarely seen outside
of his boss' office. One gets an impression of male owners and
female workers in the casino. Sternberg is not trying to obscure
business realities. Similarly, in An American Tragedy (1932)
Sternberg took us to a factory where the managers were male and
up to no good, and where the workers were all female. Dexter is
mainly seen in this office. His position as owner is closely tied
up with his self image and his identity. He is often seen hiring
people here, and getting reports. In many ways, he is just as
sinister a figure of power here as both the Jannings and Powell
characters in The Last Command. Dexter is just as sensuous
as Philip Holmes in An American Tragedy; there are suggestions
that both men are weak slaves to their lower appetites. Both films
serve as a critique of power systems.
Dexter's office is all rectilinear lines, in keeping with its
position as a male enclave.
One shot towards the end of the film
is astonishingly beautiful. It shows light from the Venetian blinds
being turned on and off, appearing and disappearing on the walls.
This combines two motifs of film noir: the blinking light source
from outside an urban window, and regular bands of light appearing
on walls from venetian blinds. Only in this Sternberg film do
I ever recall seeing both of these effects together. Only a director
as visually complex as Sternberg might feel comfortable with such
an elaborate effect, perhaps. Sternberg further enriches the image
by having the bands of light being superimposed over other complex
designs on the wall. This doubling effect will be used by Sternberg
in other parts of the film. If part of a shot is seen through
netting or curtains, there will be a complementary pattern on
the wall behind the curtains, making the visual effect doubly
Sternberg further elaborates the light from the blinds by two
effects. These effects are purely geometrical, in accordance with
Sternberg's fascination with mathematical patterns. Light from
one of the blinds extends from the upper wall onto the ceiling.
We see the angular bend in the bar of light formed from the projection
onto the ceiling. Secondly, the lights near the door are projected
on an angle on the wall, making them narrow at one end, and widening
out as they project leftward across the wall and the screen. This
is a beautiful and complex effect.
Throughout Macao, Sternberg employs his old friend, the
lateral camera movement. He is often tracking down tables in the
casino. These recall the table tracks in many previous Sternberg
movies. During the film's climactic series of chases through the
streets of Macao, Sternberg often tracks horizontally through
his studio sets. One beautiful composition after another is revealed
during these tracks. There are often gorgeous patterns of light
revealed, alternating with light shadows. The viewer often experiences
a delightful sensory overload, as so much spectacular imagery
flashes by in a glance. Only film can combine composition and
movement in this fashion, to create such delirious effects.
These later scenes often employ curtains or netting; these were
largely absent in the earlier sections of the film. The netting
gets heavier and more elaborate. Finally, in the climactic sequence
Sternberg drapes his entire harbor set with elaborate, heavy fishermen's
nets. The effect is truly spectacular. It looks like some of the
"environment" art of the 1970's and 1980's.
Sternberg was noted for glamorous costumes. Here the women
all seem to be wearing elaborate jewelry. Jane Russell wears a
huge necklace during her first big song, that glitters in the
light. Gloria Grahame also gets jewelry. During her second song,
Russell gets a metallic dress that glitters with every turn of
her body. It is remarkable and in the Sternberg tradition of elaborate
costumes. Also highly unusual: the gloves half covered with jewels
that Grahame wears while she is shaking the dice. I've never seen
anything like them in another film. The jeweled regions make an
elaborate curved 3D region on the back of Grahame's hands and
arms. They add compositional complexity to the scenes. Close-ups
in Sternberg do not necessarily lead to a loss of visual detail,
as they often do in other directors. Instead, Sternberg often
simply changes his scale, with an elaborate piece of jewelry or
other object adding a visually spectacular quality to the scene.
The men are also dressed to the max. Sternberg favored clothes
for men that suggested the dignity of their professions. His men
in earlier films are often in officer's uniforms, clothes that
suggest the last degree of refinement. Here the men are mainly
in white tropical suits and tuxedos. These are extremely elegant
and upper crust, in Sternberg's tradition. Sternberg's men are
always exceptionally elegant and well turned out, yet dressed
in clothes that suggest they are good at their work. Sternberg
liked to shine a bright light over his characters, making them
stand out from the lower lighting of the surrounding scene. He
does this several times with the men's white suits, making them
virtually flame out with whiteness from the screen. The effect
adds to the elegance of their look.
Is Macao a Film Noir?
The short answer to this question is a cautious "yes",
but with reservations. Macao was made in the film noir
era, and it has some but not all of the characteristics of noir.
First of all, Macao is a genuine crime film. This puts
it squarely in the noir tradition. It is a film whose plot involves
suspense for its characters proceeding from the crime elements:
this too is noir like.
Macao has a lot of nocturnal photography, like other noir
films. On the other hand, its photography tends to be in the Pictorialist
tradition of Sternberg's earlier films. It is not mainly a John
Alton like experiment in high contrast photography.
The central characters of Macao are neither criminals nor
detectives. Both Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell play adventurers
who wander around the Orient taking odd jobs. Both get involved
with Dexter's schemes innocently and by mistake. Neither one shows
the "obsession and alienation" that Alain Silver has
identified as characterizing noir characters. The characters'
competency at their jobs, and general control of their own fate,
also marks them out as distinct from the noir tradition. Neither
one is child like, obsessed or neurotic, and neither one looks
like they are pushed around by forces they cannot control.
The setting of the film is a lot more exotic than most film noir,
which mainly takes place in an American urban underworld. The
next year, Robert Aldrich's World
For Ransom (1953) will be set in a similar milieu to Macao,
with its look at crooks in Singapore. Both films will look a lot
alike, with Hollywood actors wandering through elaborate sets,
filled with visually interesting chinoiserie. Both films show
night clubs and living quarters; both films also show street scenes
that are obviously constructed inside a studio - and which are
nevertheless visually creative and enjoyable to watch.
All in all, it makes sense to regard Macao as Sternberg's
personal take on the noir tradition, a cross between noir elements
and his own tales of exotic adventure and romance. It is greatly
to be pitied that Sternberg did not get more chances to make noir
films. His great visual gifts could have enhanced the noir heritage.
The Dark Side of Gambling
The casino here can be compared to the one in The Shanghai
Gesture (1941). After all, both are casinos on the South China
coast, frequented by an international cast. Far from repeating
himself, the casino here in Macao is utterly different.
This casino centers on dice, whereas the one in Gesture
featured roulette wheels. Gesture was about gambling addiction,
a subject Sternberg treated very seriously. The roulette wheel
symbolized the nightmarish power of such addiction, drawing its
victims in and destroying them. By contrast, Macao is about
the casino workers. They tend to be grouped around large tables,
just like all the characters who confront each other over dining
room tables in other Sternberg movies.
One might note that neither
film would encourage anyone to gamble. Macao shows how
crooked and fixed casinos are, and how they exploit people; Gesture
shows their negative impact on people's lives.
Andrew Sarris has
stressed how virtuous all of Sternberg's characters tend to be.
Similarly, both the dialogue and characterization underline here
that Russell has kept her virtue and her dignity intact through
all the exploitative male owners and bosses around her.