Wednesday, June 09, 2004

An American Tragedy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

Part of the fun for me, as a modern viewer watching An American Tragedy, is watching director Josef von Sternberg dance around the word "pregnant", or any mention of how a young woman becomes pregnant, or how she might become not pregnant. Then I recognize that Sylvia Sidney, the old woman from Beetlejuice and Barry Sonnenfeld's Fantasy Island series, is playing said young woman, and it seems surreal. This was a movie from the start of a career that lasted until the age of 88.

Phillips Holmes is the actual lead, and it's somewhat problematic. The title of the movie refers to a tragedy, but as Clyde Griffiths, Holmes never really engenders much sympathy. He's seldom actually seeking another's downfall, but he's always looking to work an angle, or avoid responsibility. The tragedy happens to Ms. Sindey's Roberta Alden, but she's never as central as Clyde. So, after she exits, we're left without anybody to really care about. His guilt-wracked mother (Lucille La Verne) is more pathetic than sympathetic.

Fortunately, the movie shifts gears at this point. It plays as light melodrama for that first two-thirds, but the last half-hour is an outrageously over-the-top courtroom drama. Von Sternberg has the lawyers - and the movie - play to the balconies of a packed courtroom with the sort of grandstanding techniques that are courtroom dramas' bread and butter, though in recent years they've been toned town as cameras in the courtroom have shown just how restrained trials really are. For a twenty-first audience, it plays as broader comedy than perhaps von Sternberg intended; what may have been intended as satire now looks like farce. It goes on a little too long, but it the final act does have a jolt of energy that the first two-thirds may have lacked.

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