Tag Archives: F.W. Murnau

Film on TV: March 26-April 1

There seems to be a crime/thriller theme going on in my picks to highlight this week – I didn’t initially do that on purpose, but I guess I do kind of like that sort of thing. Also, TCM is still doing their film noir thing, I think, which means a lot of good crime-related stuff to choose from. A lot more good stuff is playing this week, though, including a higher-than-usual number of things I’m featuring for the first time, so head on over to Row Three to see the rest.

The Night of the Hunter

Tuesday, March 27 at 12:00M on TCM
If there’s ever a film that defined “Southern gothic,” it’s this one. Underhanded “preacher” Robert Mitchum weasels his way into a young widowed family to try to gain the money the late father hid before he died. But what starts off as a well-done but fairly standard crime thriller turns into a surreal fable somewhere in the middle, and at that moment, jumps from “good film” to “film you will be able to get out of your head NEVER.” In a good way.
1955 USA. Director: Charles Laughton. Starring: Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish.
Must See

Love Crime

Friday, March 30 (late Thursday) at 12:05am on Sundance
Alain Corneau’s final film is a Hitchcockian thriller of business intrigue heightened by personal emotions, with icy blondes facing off against each other trying to gain the upper hand both at their company and in their personal lives. It’s got a lot of twisty turns, and ends up being quite satisfying by the end. My only complaint is that the stylistics don’t match up to the plotting or the acting, but I guess in the grand scheme of things, that’s a quibble.
2010 France. Director: Alain Corneau. Starring: Ludivine Sagnier, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patrick Mille.

The Others

Friday, March 30 at 8:00pm on IFC
More than ten years later, this film remains one of my favorite horror films, because it perfectly captures that ghostly, creepy atmosphere I love so much. Nicole Kidman does her best Grace Kelly homage as a mother sequestered on a remote British island (awaiting her husband’s return from WWII) along with her children, who have a unique skin condition that means they cannot be exposed to sunlight. Swapping the safety factor of lightness and darkness is a brilliant move, and the ultimate twist is pretty good, too. But this film lives and dies by its atmosphere – menacing housekeepers, dust-covered furniture, creepy photographs, it’s all here.
2001 USA. Director: Alejandro Amenabar. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Saturday, March 31 at 8:00pm on TCM
I credit this film with my real interest in silent film. Silent comedy was a big entry point, but Sunrise, with its simple but lovely story of marital infidelity, potential murder, and reconciliation, convinced me that silent films wasn’t just about being funny, but that they could really and truly be art in and of themselves. Murnau does so much with so little here, filling every frame with such visual beauty and storytelling that he barely needs any title cards, that I was immediately sold and I’ve never turned back.
1927 USA. Director: F.W. Murnau. Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston.
Must See

Born to Kill

Saturday, March 31 at 12:00M on TCM
A film noir that had slipped past me until last year, but I certainly am glad I caught up with it. The always reliable Claire Trevor leads the film as a woman who leaves town instead of dealing with the aftermath of finding her friend murdered; unfortunately, the murderer has unwittingly left on the same train and the two end up inextricably entwined in a love-hate relationship. It’s got some obvious film noir tropes, but also plays along the edges of others (Laurence Tierney is basically an homme fatale, instead of Trevor being a femme fatale). Definitely a film worth your time if you’re into noir or classic crime dramas.
1947 USA. Director: Robert Wise. Starring: Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook Jr., Isabel Jewell.

Film Classics – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

directed by F.W. Murnau
starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
USA 1927; screened 8 July 2008 at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles

Let me just quickly tell you about me and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It’s been on my see-soon list for years, as one of the most highly regarded silent films ever. Initially I added it to my Netflix queue, knowing it had been released on DVD as part of a Fox box set though not individually. Netflix apparently lost their copy or something and decided not to replace it, putting in the “unavailable” section of my queue instead. Plan B: Wait for it to come on during TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights or 31 Days of Oscar program. Several months later, it did, and I smiled and set my DVR. Which decided to flake and tape only the first five minutes. Foiled again. About a year later, I moved to LA and what should be showing at the local repertory cinema? Yep, Sunrise accompanied by a live band with an original score. And it was one of the best cinematic experiences of my life, so apparently the cinema powers-that-be just knew that I needed to wait and see it in a cinema rather than on DVD or TV. Thank you.

I’ve heard over and over that silent film had reached a heady apex of artistry by the 1920s that was shattered by the coming of sound and its attendant clunky equipment, but I’m not sure I ever fully believed in the poetic power of silent film as a fully realized art form until I saw Sunrise. I’d been impressed by individual elements of several silent films – the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, the pathos of Charlie Chaplin, the Expressionist oddness of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – but never had I seen a film that combines the traditional qualities of silent film with a such a timeless sense of humanity and beauty.

The story is simple. A husband ignores his sweet but inconsequential wife in favor of a femme fatale (or vamp, since we’re in the 1920s) from the big city. The vamp convinces the husband to kill the wife to get her out of the way, but as he’s about to do this, he can’t and instead takes the wife to the city and they reconstitute their love. The very simplicity of the story, however, is what allows director F.W. Murnau room to exercise his Expressionist-influenced visual flair and create a dark, moody landscape for the characters to inhabit.

Near the beginning, the vamp coyly leads the husband through the wet and disorienting marshes near his farm, a scene ripe for interpretation by Freudian critics, let me just say. Similarly, the near-murder scene is overacted by both the husband and the wife, but Murnau uses the overdetermined silent movie acting style to great psychological advantage – out of context, the scene could easily be laughable today, but no one in the cinema was laughing. Later, the city is a bustling, dangerous place, showcasing the physicality and motion that silent films perfected before sound came and changed the game.

Though I’m far from seeing all the silent films available (which is still only a small percentage of the ones that were made), I feel fairly confident in declaring that Sunrise represents the epitome of silent film art. It’s not for nothing that it won “Outstanding Artistic Achievement” at the first ever Academy Awards – an award that was never given again. If you can see it in a cinema, do. Otherwise, keep your eye on TCM, as they do play it occasionally.