Hauteur and ruination of the grand Russian bear, Josef von Sternberg has it as reflexive epic and theory of moviemaking. Fate has a fierce pull and so do "the breadlines of Hollywood," the quivering old immigrant (Emil Jannings) is summoned from flophouse to studio make-up loft, a decade earlier he was commanding general during the Bolshevik Revolution. Swathed in furs and smoke back in the Old World, he used to inspect the Czar's troops and interrogate subversives with riding crop and roving eye. The "fine patriotic service" of performance is a vital theme, "the most dangerous revolutionist in Russia" (Evelyn Brent) also plays concubine in the government palace, a small tremble but gives the mask away. The upheaval machine at full steam (Trotsky and Stalin are recognizable amid the "obscure characters"), it plunges into frigid waters like Eisenstein's horse carriage (October) The humbled martinet now in the Dream Factory is at the mercy of the prisoner turned vengeful auteur (William Powell), "a great shock" deserves another. Nabokov irony, Pirandello approach, Sternberg virtuosity. (Lateral pans at the clothing and props department give cinema's bare apparatus, European recreations illustrate its mighty artifice with tracking shots over multiple planes of movement.) History and relationships are revolving dances of oppressors and oppressed, along the way there are rituals: "That sort of thing should always be done after caviar." A man and his uniform (Der Letzte Mann), the true medal on the ersatz coat, surfaces meticulously polished and then torn open. It builds lambently to an imitation of an imitation—two rivals wrestling for control of the mise en scène, the tragicomedy of a bit player's flash of mad inspiration as the cameras roll. "Is that supposed to be Russian? It looks like an ad for cough drops!" Rossellini's General della Rovere pointedly reflects the finale, pearls and champagne for the comely tovarich and for Lubitsch (Ninotchka). Cinematography by Bert Glennon. With Jack Raymond, Nicholas Soussanin, Michael Visaroff, and Fritz Feld. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce