Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I don't yet own the remastered first-time-on-DVD Earrings of Madame De... (I treasure my videocassette copy), but it would have to be a pretty sterling remastering to knock 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's job restoration of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise from the top of my list of the year's best. It's quite likely that the 1927 classic has never looked this good: the once-removed videotape copy I checked out of the university library in 1996 popped and cracked like a toddler walking on bubble wrap. Released as part of the firm's Murnau, Borzage and Fox collection, it does much to restore not just Murnau's reputation, but introduce most of us to the work of Janet Gaynor, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. She's sweet, not saccharine, and the simplicity of her effects foils Murnau's fluid, baroque staging; we root for her as the only human being, in spite of a blond wig that's like a shower cap with a ponytail.

Don't look at silent films for a realistic depiction of human behavior, let alone coherent plots. This is a film in which we're asked to extend our sympathy to George O'Brien after a City Girl, sultry and slinky like Jezebel, tempts him into murdering Gaynor -- he really does love her, you know. Concentrate instead on Murnau's extraordinary visual effects and eye for emotional verisimilitude: a dog running through the water to catch up with the boat carrying his master away; O'Brien's proto-Frankenstein walk

Dave Kehr provides excellent context.

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