Sternberg puts poetry in his images, but he puts plenty in the intertitles too. Eight minutes in, I’d read about thirty flowery title cards – it’s like if Antonioni movies had subtitles telling you what everything meant, instead of relying on the images.
It’s not as plotless as the Criterion box’s commentaries and docs led me to believe – tells a story, just does it in an unhurried, lingering way. A cowardly young man, a bitter young woman and a helpless child live on the docks, spend their days full of ennui watching a dredge dig the same hole day in and day out, chased around by the dredge workers. One day they up and decide to leave for the city together, after seeing a cat. Take it away, intertitles: “The black cat, like an evil spirit, warned the three nobodies to leave the dredge before the thundering mud could bury their souls.”
My favorite title upon their arrival: “Man’s worst enemy is man. A city is full of enemies.” Some guy who wears lipstick lets them stay at his place for free, knowing that the boy is too stupid to find a job and planning to whore out the girl when the three get too hungry and hopeless. At least I think that’s his plan – things like that used to go unspoken in movies.
But all the makeshift family seems to do is sit on the couch and stare at the walls. Since they expend no energy, they don’t get hungry very fast, so the impatient lipstick man decides to “take her out for a ride in the country and let romance do a little work.” His idea of the country is a depressing little field next to the highway, where he tries to win her trust by beating up the little kid. The young man (“the boy” in the titles) finally asserts himself. “The man was only the victim. The boy was not beating him. He was conquering the harbor, the city, the mud – all the forces that had held him down, and most of all his own cowardly self.”
Horned Lipstick Man:
The titles beam about this moral victory! “Behold! They have fought and won a mighty battle – over themselves! It isn’t conditions, nor is it environment – our faith controls our lives!” The trio walks literally into the sunset, probably falling down and starving to death once out of camera range.
M. Gebert wrote an excellent article about early Sternberg:
Contrary to the usual Hollywood picture of the plucky poor, all must have felt like a slap from something utterly new in 1925. It certainly spawned a fair number of followers— when Lillian Gish gets a face full of wind, when James Murray’s dreams are buried in the crowd, when a Man thinks of drowning his wife for A Woman From the City, you can see how The Salvation Hunters helped shape Hollywood’s idea of what an artistic drama was
In between [Salvation Hunters and Underworld] is the famous unseen and lost film, The Sea Gull. We will presumably never know whether Chaplin suppressed it because he was jealous of how good it was, or because it was unreleasable crap. But I have my suspicions; many independent filmmakers have used their second, better-financed film to essentially remake their first film, much more self-indulgently and with a belief in their own genius inflated well beyond reality.
I thought this was quite good for ’25, it just didn’t make me leap out of my seat like Underworld did. I guess now I’ve seen all the silent Sternberg movies that are known to survive. Some of his other lost films include Exquisite Sinner (pre-Underworld, taken out of Sternberg’s hands by the studio after shooting) The Drag Net (after The Last Command) and The Case of Lena Smith (after Docks of New York). On to the talking pictures.