Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein
Starring: Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Francis Dee, Irving Pichel, Frederick Burton, Claire McDowell, Wallace Middleton
Country: USA
Running time: 96 min
Year: 1931
BBFC certificate: PG

Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of the novel An American Tragedy came midway through his celebrated seven collaborations with actress Marlene Dietrich, six of which were made for Paramount Pictures. Paramount had paid $150,000 for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy – based on the real-life death of Grace Brown in 1906 and the trial of her lover, Chester Gillette – but initial attempts to bring it to the screen by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein were abandoned at the script approval stage. With so much invested already, Paramount wasted little time in enlisting von Sternberg to develop his own version of the story.

The film opens with a hit and run that strikes like a jolt to the system, and then leads to Phillips Holmes’ character Clyde, a passenger in the car involved in the crime, leaving to escape possible consequences. He gets a job cleaning dishes before rising up the ranks in a collar and shirt factory, where he meets Sylvia Sidney’s character, Roberta (mostly referred to throughout the film as Bert). A romance starts but Clyde starts to lose interest, despite promising to marry Roberta, after meeting socialite Sondra and beginning an affair.

The tragedy of the title then occurs on a lake. Clyde plans to kill Roberta to end their engagement, and reads about a boat accident which inspires the main tragedy of the title (though it’s just one of several sad events in the film, starting with the early hit and run). Clyde takes Roberta out on a boat onto the lake, but has a change of heart or loss of nerve and can’t go through with the murder. His vacant, ice-cold stare and erratic behaviour terrify Roberta, however, leading to a scuffle breaking out and the boat capsizing. Clyde swims to safety, ignoring the cries for help from Roberta, who tragically drowns. Clyde continues his affair with Sondra but the law quickly catches up with him. He is arrested and charged with murder, before going on to a headline-grabbing trial (which takes up the second half of the film).

It’s a strong, though flawed, film which I feel is a better movie and adaptation of the book than the more famous 1951 version A Place in the Sun which features Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, amongst other stars. What’s particularly striking about von Sternberg’s version is the cinematography by Lee Garmes. The lake scenes, which were shot on location, in particular look excellent and the capture of light on water, also used in the opening titles, is beautiful.

The two central performances are also noteworthy. Holmes is, at at times, seemingly devoid of any humanity or feeling. It’s a sinister portrayal that leaves you unsure of what he will do next – and whether he even has any idea himself. He is a deeply unlikeable character who dreams to ‘be somebody’ and has no qualms about dropping Roberta, who clearly loves him dearly, for a socialite and a chance at money and success. Sidney is also wonderful, and it’s her performance that sticks most in the memory. She’s very likeable and her character is put through the ringer from being incredibly happy and in love to despair and ultimately fear, just before her death. The film is, in my opinion, poorer for her exit midway through.

This is very much a performance of two halves. The first half is strongest, as we witness the rise and fall of Clyde and his romancing of both Roberta and Sondra. The second half plays out the murder trial and I found these scenes to be relatively standard fare for a courtroom drama, which An American Tragedy becomes, particularly considering this was directed by von Sternberg. Perhaps I was expecting too much. What does stand out in these scenes, though, is Holmes’ increasingly unhinged performance, and some of the reaction shots of those in attendance, plus the novel reenactment of the pivotal lake scene with Clyde sat in a canoe in the middle of the courtroom.

In closing, I found much to enjoy in An American Tragedy; performances, cinematography and that fantastic opening half all leaving a strong impression. The second half struggles to emulate this opening, never recovering from the midway exit of Sidney’s character, but overall it’s an entertaining slice of pre-code cinema.

Film:

An American Tragedy was released on limited edition Blu-ray by Powerhouse Films on their Indicator label on 18th December 2023. The 2019 restoration from a 4K scan is excellent, with picture quality very strong throughout, just a few blemishes and soft shots on occasion, with strong detail. The audio is clean and clear.

INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES

2019 restoration from a 4K scan

Original mono audio

Audio commentary with film historian Josh Nelson (2023)

Josef von Sternberg Oral History (1958, 27 mins): rare archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with George Pratt

Lee Garmes Oral History (1958, 89 mins): rare archival audio recording of the cinematographer in conversation with Pratt

An American Picture (2023, 29 mins): extensive discussion of An American Tragedy by the writer and film programmer Tony Rayns

Nurture & Nature (2023, 8 mins): video essay by film historian Tag Gallagher

Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials

New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith, Jeff Billington on Sergei Eisenstein’s proposed Hollywood adaptation of An American Tragedy, extracts from Josef von Sternberg’s memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry, an archival article on Theodore Dreiser’s response to the film, and film credits

World premiere on Blu-ray

Limited edition of 3,000 copies for the UK

The new audio commentary by Josh Nelson covers a lot of ground, starting by spending some time looking at what pre-code cinema is and the production code itself and how these, and other things, shaped the production of the film and the end product. It also highlights recurring motifs in the film and von Sternberg’s career, together with some of the elements, like introductory text and dedications, that were added in the film late in the day.  We hear about key players and collaborators and their importance to the development of the movie, as well as what von Sternberg took from the novel. It also highlights the performances and spotlights elements from the careers of the actors, particularly Sylvia Sidney, whose performance Nelson rightly describes as the “beating heart of the movie”. An excellent commentary.

The 27-minute Joseph von Sternberg audio history and 89-minute Lee Garmes audio history, recorded by curator and film historian George Pratt in 1958, are rich with detail but on occasion can be quite dry. Garmes is the more engaging of the two and packs in a wealth of information. They’re certainly a nice inclusion and a welcome historical record.

Tony Rayns provides an authoritative and fascinating overview in the best extra of the set. It runs for 29 minutes and provides background to author Dreiser and looks at the real life incident that was the genesis for the book. Rayns gives his thoughts on some of the differences between the script and the book, and much more making the run time fly by. Rayns’ inclusion is always welcome.

The Tad Gallagher piece is a brief (8 minutes) but excellent and thoughtful look at the melodramatic nature of von Sternberg’s movies, and the way the leads actors are filmed and their motivations, together with how the characters differ from the book. Gallagher has a very different style to most video essays, and I like it. This one is no different.

The image gallery contains almost 40 production stills and promotional images (lobby cards and posters).

The 40-page booklet, lavishly illustrated with black and white stills, production images and posters, opens with a strong essay from Imogen Sara Smith, who covers the real-life murder, performances in the film, its production, and the production code, and responses to the movie once it was released. It’s brilliant. Up next, Jeff Billington provides a fascinating run through scenes from the script of Battleship Potemkin director Sergei Eisenstein’s unrealised version of An American Tragedy. It could have been something special. Also included are excellent extracts from Von Sternberg’s memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and a contemporary report on a lawsuit author Dreiser brought against Paramount as he felt the film was not representative of his novel. It’s a stellar booklet, as always from the Indicator label.

Indicator have provided a top notch package for a decent, though not top tier, von Sternberg picture, with well appointed extras, a packed booklet and strong audio visual treatment, headlined by the 2019 restoration.

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Passionate about film, from the silents to the present day and everything in between, particularly 80s blockbusters, cult movies and Asian cinema.

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