Thursday 12 October 2017

My Top Ten Films of all Time (3) - SUNRISE (F W Murnau, USA, 1927)

F W Murnau
William Fox founded his film studio in Hollywood in 1915.  Fox made his money out of Theda Bara and out of Tom Mix westerns. However he had also employed Raoul Walsh, Frank Borzage, John Ford and Howard Hawks. 

Fox invited F W Murnau to leave Germany and come to Hollywood to make movies that would give an additional patina of quality to his company. At around the same time, Wikipedia advises,  Fox purchased the rights to the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, the U.S. rights to the Tri-Ergon system invented by three German inventors (Josef Engl (1893–1942), Hans Vogt (1890–1979), and Joseph Massolle (1889–1957), and the work of Theodore Case to create the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, introduced in 1927 with the release of Murnau’s Sunrise.

Murnau had arrived, after completing Faust, in July 1926. He had been directing in Germany since 1919. His last three films in Germany, The Last Laugh, Tartuffe and Faust had added substantially to the reputation established with Noseferatu in 1922.

Janet Gaynor, the streetcar, Sunrise
I first saw Sunrise in a 16mm pr-int projected onto Bruce Hodsdon’s lounge room wall, lo many decades ago. The long streetcar sequence has remained luminous in the memory ever since.

Watching the film again is to be reminded of the near to complete studio artifice that went into its making. Over the course of decades there has been much scrutiny of the effects Murnau, his photographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss and his team of art directors Rochus Gliese, Edgar G Ulmer and Alfred Metscher achieved. Much analysis has especially gone into the shots of the city involving the train arriving in the station with a vista trailing away into the distance. To give the effect of massive distance, Murnau and his team populated the top of the frame with children and midgets so as to make the populace appear to be forever vanishing.

George O'Brien, Mary Livingston, Sunrise
Murnau opens by dumping us into the middle of an amour fou story of a simple man from a village by a lake besotted by a black clad woman from the city. It is somewhat of a piece with the work of the screenwriter Carl Mayer who was proficient with stories of the downfall and salvation of the common man. Emil Jannings invested another of Murnau’s great creations, the doorman in The Last Laugh, with a huge amount of such gravitas. But it’s also clear from all the research that Murnau shook the story out.

Much of that research is reported upon in the booklet that comes with the DVD where there essays and much information provided by David Pierce, R Dixon Smith, Lotte Eisner and Robin Wood. The last named was somewhat underwhelmed by the film.                                 

The copy I have was published in 2005 and has since been superseded by The Brit Masters of Cinema edition of 2009 which claims to  be “for the first time anywhere in the world in 1080p HD on Blu-ray, in addition to a newly mastered 2 x DVD set. It contains two versions of the film: the previously released Movietone version, and an alternate silent version of the film recently discovered in the Czech Republic. The Blu-ray edition includes both versions in 1080p HD.”

That may be just a bit misleading. The Restoration Notes by David Pierce, written in 2003, on the booklet accompanying the 2005 MoC edition make mention of ‘a well-worn nitrate silent print made in 1927’ held by the Narodni Filmovy Archiv in Prague’ which I presume is the version referred to above. The claim was made that the 2005 release is “the best possible using the technologies available in 2003”.  Whatever.

William Fox (1921)
Murnau made only three more films in America before his death in a car accident in March 1931 at the age of 42. 

Wikipedia tells us that “Fox lost control of the Fox Film Corporation in 1930 during a hostile takeover. A combination of the stock market crash, Fox's car accident injury, and government antitrust action forced him into a protracted seven-year struggle to fight off bankruptcy. At his bankruptcy hearing in 1936, he attempted to bribe judge John Warren Davis and committed perjury, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison. After serving his time, Fox retired from the film business. He died more or less unnoticed in 1952 at the age of 73 in New York City. No Hollywood producers came to his funeral.” His name remains part of Twentieth Century Fox.

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