As Ben Sachs noted last week, the Music Box has officially begun a three-month retrospective of the films both starring actress Marlene Dietrich and directed by Josef von Sternberg. If that wasn’t exciting enough, each film—seven titles in total—will screen on 35-millimeter. Sachs is dead-on when he writes that “few directors have been as obsessed as von Sternberg by the properties of light and shadow—watching his work on celluloid is comparable to attending a painting exhibition.”
So basically, you better not miss many—if any—of these. The chance to see these on the big screen, particularly in an age when celluloid exhibition is becoming more and more rare, is enticing and special. The only bummer about the series is it doesn’t include any of von Sternberg’s non-Dietrich films—but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. Maybe that’s the next series. Anyway, as a precursor, you can see my five favorite von Sternberg films below.
5. Underworld (1927) Largely considered the first bona fide gangster picture, this silent drama set the standard for crime cinema writ large; its DNA is seen in genres like noir and the thriller and films such as The Godfather and even Scarface, the Howard Hawks classic released only a few years later.
4. Morocco (1930) This romantic drama is Dietrich and von Sternberg’s first American collaboration, and it’s also among their finest, a passionate, expressive, and visually dynamic film rounded out by a brilliant supporting cast that includes Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou.
3. Shanghai Express (1932) Only recently available on DVD, this is perhaps the most underrated of the Dietrich/von Sternberg joints. The film is nearly pure mood, a lush and exotic ride peppered with romance and occasional danger, and the cinematography, per usual, is masterful.
2. The Devil Is a Woman (1935) The final Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration, another film that was hard to find for a spell. In his capsule, Dave Kehr writes perhaps the greatest sentence to ever describe the director and his work: “Sternberg’s universe is a realm of textures, shadows, and surfaces, which merge and separate in an erotic dance.” This is the one I’m most excited to see on 35-millimeter.
1. The Docks of New York (1928) Among the greatest of silent films, an expressionistic classic that arrived just as sound technology changed the form forever. If the film had been in sound, its poetic qualities surely would have been muted. As it stands, Docks of New York‘s haunting montage, vivid chiaroscuro, and adept use of film grammar—those dissolves!—make it an ideal case for the argument that cinema is a visual-first medium.