Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 1931. Paramount Pictures. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser. Cinematography by Lee Garmes. Produced by Josef von Sternberg. Music by John Leipold, Ralph Rainger. Production Design by Hans Dreier. Costume Design by Travis Banton.
Adapted from the same novel by Theodore Dreiser that would be more famously adapted by George Stevens as A Place In The Sun in 1951, this film does away with most of the attention given to the forbidden romance between a poor boy and a society heiress. Instead, director Josef von Sternberg keeps his narrative focused on the main character’s ambition, his crime and its lengthy aftermath, which angered Dreiser, who sued the studio in the hopes of having the film shelved (he lost, though Paramount added more scenes from the book to please him and director Josef von Sternberg disavowed the finished film).
Phillips Holmes is wonderfully stiff as a working-class boy whose connection to a wealthy uncle gets him a job at a shirt factory, where he rises to management level and conducts an inappropriate affair with one of his employees (played by the lovely Sylvia Sidney). When she tells him she’s in trouble, she expects him to do the right thing, but he’s already met a gorgeous socialite (Frances Dee) and wants to marry her. Unable to shake off his responsibility, he decides to do away with it instead, taking Sidney out to the middle of the lake with dark plans on his mind. Things don’t go as expected, but it isn’t long before he finds himself in a courtroom defending himself on capital charges.
Von Sternberg was one of the few directors of the early talkies who had a handle on the medium and was already cutting his films with a pace that could become standard in the later thirties; without missing a beat, he coaxes rich performances out of all his actors, giving a great deal more sympathy to the Sidney character than Stevens would (clearly hoping we’d all want to drown Shelley Winters) and making sure that Holmes’ character understands the importance of what he has done.
It’s among the few of the director’s works that isn’t overwhelmed by the baroque sense of exotic beauty that he was most famous for (even in his films set in America), but it still features plenty of shadowy images and innovative angles to be worthy of his most memorably designed works. The script, however, hits a wall once it comes time to enter the courtroom and the last act of the film is a deadly bore, overwhelmed by endless speeches and fights between surprisingly devoted lawyers.