BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Apr 4th, 2006 •

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Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1930-47.
Five features. 2 Discs. All in B&W. 3 by Joseph von Sternberg.

MOROCCO (1930) 1 hr. 32 mins. Directed by von Sternberg. Originally released by Paramount. With Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou.

BLONDE VENUS (1932) 1 hr. 34 mins. Originally released by Paramount. Directed by von Sternberg. With Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant.

THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (1935) 1 hr. 20 mins. Originally released by Paramount. Directed by von Sternberg. With Dietrich, Lionel Atwill, Cesar Romero.

THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS (1941) 1 hr. 19 mins. Directed by Rene Clair. Written by Norman Krasna. With Dietrich, Bruce Cabot, Roland Young.

GOLDEN EARRINGS (1947) 1 hr. 36 mins. Originally released by Paramount. Directed by Mitchell Liesen. With Dietrich, Ray Milland, Murvyn Vye.

She was the most hypnotic of creatures. And she still holds up. These are wonderful films to stare at, particularly when von Sternberg is wielding the frame. He saw her as an object of worship, as an extension of the art department. It worked. And after they’d parted company, even in ’47, under that dark gypsy makeup in GOLDEN EARRINGS, she was ravishing to behold. Her best film with her best director, DISHONORED, is yet to come, probably in the second collection; there are still two von Sternbergs remaining, and no evidence of any reason for including the ones they did and not including the ones they didn’t. Whatever, the ones she did with him are all great, and a few of them are out through other labels – THE BLUE ANGEL with Kino, and THE SCARLET EMPRESS with Criterion. Universal also has out TOUCH OF EVIL, in which she’s got a supporting role, but packs another dark-skin-toned wallop and leaves the film with it’s cynical Noir signature line: “He was some kind of a man,” referring to another great director with whom she should have worked more often – Orson Welles.

Dietrich was brought over from Germany partially to combat MGM’s foreign femme, Greta Garbo. They did vie for the viewing audience, but they were nothing alike. Dietrich sang, and she allowed herself to be designed. Garbo trusted some of her directors, but she was difficult, and she was not known for belting out tunes. Dietrich was at ease with an ambivalent sexuality, she was depicted as dangerous in films as concerned men, but off camera, was known to be motherly if a male friend were sick. The Duke (John Wayne) confessed that she was the only actress who ever dragged him into bed during a production, and she lived into her nineties, singing in Europe (where I caught up with her, in Copenhagen in 1963), and lived otherwise in seclusion, barely cooperating with Maximilian Schell in a documentary (MARLENE, 1983, Image Entertainment) about her reminiscences which, after having suffered a stroke, didn’t come out as belonging to the same Marlene Dietrich we’d all heard about over the decades.

She is above all still an object of contemplation. Whether mildly so, as in Rene Clair’s busy but largely unsuccessful America-as-France farce, THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS, or at her best, with Von Sternberg, in MOROCCO. Her face seems artificial when you stare at its parts…try the eyebrows. Scary! But seen as a whole, she somehow escapes from the B&W images and takes over your life. And we could use a little Marlene Dietrich in all our lives. So this is a good collection.

The highlight is the gorilla dance, ‘Hot Voodoo’ in BLONDE VENUS. But there are many highlights nearly as luminous in the collection. She certainly raises the bar in considering what risks it takes to brave a relationship with an exotic woman. In fact, rather than desiring someone just like her to bring home to mother, I imagine most men felt she was better left up there on the screen. Just make it a one-nighter, or a one-afternooner, for the duration of time the projector lamp delivered her into your field of vision. Then home to a safer, if duller, life.

I’ve only got one problem with the two-disc package. Some digital mastering technicians, or studio supervisors, still think that since the telecine machines can get the image sharper than it ever was, even in 35mm, that this is therefore the way to go. No. All these films were shot on nitrate stock, which had a luscious look not unlike heavy cream, and that patina is stripped away in most of these presentations. Let us not forget CITY LIGHTS (the wires!), or last year’s DVD re-release of the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS (the wires!). The image was not meant to be that sharp. It spoiled some of the magic. And there’s some of that going on here, as well. Not enough to ruin the experience. There were no wires here…that I know of. And MOROCCO comes off best in this area, possibly because no fine-grain prints were left to use as the mastering source, hence the softness remains.

Ordinarily I’d recommend a double-bill, but this is its own double-bill. Only be careful. I don’t know what two doses of Dietrich is liable to do to an impressionable viewer. Maybe a Dietrich and a Garbo?

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