BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE SHIP OF LOST MEN

By • Sep 24th, 2012 •

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Marlene Dietrich would like to have had us believe that THE BLUE ANGEL was her first film. She re-wrote history a lot when it came to her past. But the actress portraying wealthy, independent society-girl-cum-aviatrix Ethel Marley looks an awful lot like her… in fact it is her, and this film preceded ANGEL by a year at least. She actually looks more like herself here than she did in ANGEL, where the slightly robust burlesque singer, Lola Lola, who she so effectively portrayed, pretty much camouflaged her striking looks, despite the film’s having been directed by her future visual stylist, Joseph Von Sternberg.

This is a German production, filmed in German waters, but helmed by French director Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques), who was comfortable creating features in France, Germany, and the U.S. To quote his bio on IMDB, he was “credited with bringing “stylization” to the American screen through his mastery of set design and lighting. His primary concern, however, was story: “Show the people anything, but show them something,” Tourneur declared in a May 1920 interview with Motion Picture Magazine.”

One can still clearly see, in this 1929 film – despite the fact that, sadly, it can no longer be measured against the vast cinematic output that surrounded it in those last days of ‘silence’ since countless titles from that era are MIA – that the matter of style is indeed near the forefront of the director’s concerns. Worn and at times a bit soft, the art direction still stands out grandly, recalling the lush UFA look. The story, of a doctor whose act of conscience concerning a sailor who has been beaten senseless, results in his being stuck aboard ship against his will for a three month trip, navigating amidst a dangerous crew, and under the rule of a totally amoral captain. Into this mix descends (literally) a lone woman, who is rescued by the doctor from her downed plane in the ocean.

Even given the slow pacing, the actors hold on to the emotional truth of their performances with remarkable consistency. Some shots feel literally twice as long as they would be today, or perhaps even should have been then. Check the rapid editing of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), or some of Abel Gance‘s work, and it’s clear that shots held this long weren’t necessarily the norm.

The best actor in the cast, who never breaks his reality for even a moment, is American lead Robin Irvine. He’s modern looking, intense, and anchors the drama. A promising career ended a mere four years later when he died at age 31.

Fritz Kortner as the sneering captain is a loathsome villain and totally convincing. Even more threatening, though, is Gaston Modot as an escaped convict who has bought his passage on the ship and eventually poses the ultimate threat to Ms. Dietrich. His glorious caricature of a face – whose contemporary incarnation could have been Charles Napier, whose long, fun career included such deliciously ripe thesping gems as Harry Sledge in Russ Meyer’s SUPERVIXENS) – is of a different, mugging mode of acting than Irvine’s, but somehow the two styles mesh.

Of course you’re wondering how Dietrich comes across. She’s very good. Soon she would solidify her screen persona under Sternberg’s cinematic sculpting. But if she thought her silent parts were unworthy of remembering, she was too hard on herself. If you’re fond of her work, this is a welcome addition to her cannon and belongs on the shelf alongside her other, later films.

A car accident in which he lost a leg curtailed Tourneur’s career in 1949 (his last feature was APRES L’AMOUR in ’48), but he kept busy until his death at age 88 in 1961. Many of his films from Europe and Hollywood are yet to grace the world of DVDs. There is even an earlier Tourneur film from 1923 called THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS which, though different on a narrative level, was similarly themed, and it (ISLE) was remade the same year as THE SHIP OF LOST MEN (’29) by director Irvin Willat.

As an aside worth noting: one of the more outrageously flagrant phallic symbols – right up there with Sterling Hayden positioning the machine gun against his crotch and Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb down to its target in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE – occurs when Modot makes his grotesque come-on to Dietrich over dinner. The grinning, leering convict tries to open a bottle of champagne in his lap while eyeing his prey, but if you look at it in a slightly different way, what he’s wrestling with no longer appears to be the neck and head of a champagne bottle….

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