Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

The opening feels like a lot of other great late silent films, so confident, kinetic, precipitous. Lang’s Spies maybe. The story and the ideas that grow out of it are pretty simple, but it’s all composed and performed and cut so propulsively that it is still quite thrilling. This continues—basically we’ve got a really artful melodrama going here. It’s involving and exciting, with the value added of some satisfying character trajectories. The four main characters ebb and flow, always maintaining a wonderful, almost musical balance. One gathers that writer Ben Hecht wasn’t happy about the film, but there are also gangster authenticities that deepen the experience considerably. Further, it is clear that, visually speaking, something special is going on. That first falling feather gives notice. A visual medium! And a director up to exploiting that characteristic of it.

The later party sequence is something else altogether. Who let Erich von Stroheim in here? That lightning montage of Boschian faces prefigures Scorcese/Schrader—dire naturalism rendered with operatic excess, resulting in a terrible beauty, maybe even fear and pity. The man who would become Josef von Sternberg shows up with the ridiculous excess of detritus that marks the end of these revels. Both vons seem to be present for the attempted rape. Man! Maybe the end stretches things, and edges into the sentimental. Thank goodness, probably.