Sunrise (aka: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) (1927) F.W. Murnau’s stylish, affecting melodrama packs a wallop. The deceptively simple story about a crumbling marriage is enhanced by complex visuals that underscore the ensuing drama. The main characters, known simply as The Man and The Wife (George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, respectively) are archetypes, as well as the urban and bucolic landscapes depicted in the film. Sunrise contrasts the quiet, serene countryside with the bustling city (actually a huge set). Instead of fixating on the characters’ identities or the specifics of where they live, we’re left to ruminate on the universal aspects of the human condition. The Man contemplates murdering his wife, so he can go off to the big city with his lover, The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). Before he can act on his dark impulses, he’s overwhelmed with guilt about his planned betrayal. Murnau’s masterful use of shadows, fog and overlapping images provides a feast for the eyes, while the story is a meditation on darkness and light that reside in us all.
Rating: **** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Un Chien Andalou (1929) From the opening scene where a woman’s eyeball appears to be sliced by a straight razor, you know all bets are off in this surrealist joint venture between director Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (who co-wrote the scenarios with his partner in crime). It’s an intentionally jarring experience that can be likened to a funhouse ride, featuring more insanity in 17 minutes than most full-length movies. The plotless parade of images taps into our unconscious, and brings it bubbling up to the surface in an Id-laced explosion. It doesn’t take a film major to see how this film could have provided the template for David Lynch’s works. 85 years onward, Un Chien Andalou is still fanciful, nightmarish and disturbing.
Rating: **** . Available on DVD
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) G.W. Pabst directed this German drama, based on a novel by Margarete Böhme. The film chronicles the sad exploits of Thymian (Louise Brooks), a pharmacist’s daughter. When she’s raped by her father’s business partner, Meinert (Fritz Rasp) and becomes pregnant, it’s Thymian who must pay the price. After refusing to marry the loutish Meinert, she’s sent away to a girls’ reformatory, where she meets a cruel headmistress (Valeska Gert) and creepy director (played by Andrews Engelmann, who obviously relishes his role as the heavy). She eventually escapes, but drifts from one bad situation into another when she takes refuge in a brothel. Brooks’ is mesmerizing as the eponymous “lost girl,” conveying sorrow and lost innocence with her expressive eyes. Diary of a Lost Girl takes a cynical view of men and their intentions, as well as the role of women in society. While men are free to have their indiscretions, it’s the women in their lives who must shoulder the burden.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
The Avenging Conscience: or Thou Shalt Not Kill (1914) This landmark film from director D.W. Griffith was inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe (especially “The Telltale Heart”), and represents a step forward in early horror cinema. A domineering uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) stands in the way of the woman his nephew (Henry B. Walthall) loves. After the nephew murders the uncle, he’s subsequently haunted by a ghost and sees demonic apparitions, including visions of heaven and hell. Just when it seems hopeless for the main character, the film takes an abrupt shift with a tacked on happy ending, replete with images of dancing sprites and a flute-playing Pan. The Kino DVD also includes a 1909 short from Griffith, which attempts to re-create a pivotal moment in Edgar Allan Poe’s life. It’s unintentionally hilarious, as Poe finds inspiration in a raven, and gleefully composes his famous poem.
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD
Waxworks (1924) Director Paul Leni’s expressionistic portmanteau film prefigures such macabre anthologies as Dead of Night, and the Amicus horror movies. While it’s not really horror in the strictest sense, the expressionistic elements and suspense themes would prove to be influential in future productions, especially Universal Studios horror in the ‘30s. In the framing story, a writer (William Dieterle) is hired to weave tales that will accompany a traveling sideshow with wax figures of history’s most famous (and infamous) people. The first segment concerns the Caliph, Haroun al-Raschid (Emil Jannings) and a lowly baker (also Dieterle) in Baghdad. The imaginative, distorted sets match the shape of the Caliph’s ample frame. In the second segment, Conrad Veidt stars as Ivan the Terrible, and depicts his nefarious scheming and eventual descent into madness. The third segment, concerning Jack the Ripper, is surreal and claustrophobic, but ultimately disappointing, with no real story. A man and a woman are pursued by Jack (Werner Krauss) at every corner, with nowhere to hide. Compared to the previous two stories, it appears as if the filmmakers ran out of film, inspiration, or money (a fourth story, featuring Italian bandit Rinaldo Rinaldini was planned, but never filmed). Despite the weak third segment, Waxworks is well worth checking out.
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD
The Cook (1918) This collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (who also directed) and Buster Keaton was thought lost for many years, until a Norwegian print turned up in the ‘90s. Arbuckle, who was one of the biggest stars in the world during the film’s release, plays the title character, while Buster Keaton co-stars as a waiter. The cook takes the business of hash slinging seriously, as dishes are flying fast and furious, and the waiter must endeavor keep up with them. In one clever running gag, everything from soup to ice cream seems to emerge from one enormous pot. In another scene, the kitchen staff members sit down to eat, employing inventive ways to eat spaghetti. Flying food antics aside, it’s nothing special, but it’s worth a watch due to its rarity. The Cook DVD is accompanied by two other shorts, one featuring Arbuckle in A Reckless Romeo (1917), and Number, Please (1920), a hilarious Harold Lloyd short with a rather downbeat ending.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD