Thunderbolt (Josef von Sternberg / U.S., 1929):

A reconfiguration of Underworld for the arrival of sound, so its poetry can echo on to Auden ("In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise"). A feline eye opens Josef von Sternberg's camera, prowling across an ankle-level row of sweethearts at night until spotting the pert moll (Fay Wray) and the bank teller (Richard Arlen) intertwined on a park bench. A police matter, "don't get ritzy with me, you ritzy," her dream is to be "regular people" far from the gangster (George Bancroft). The Black Cat nightclub has slanted picket-fence décor and the beginnings of the innovative tessitura (a stuttering maitre d' side by side with Theresa Harris doing a torchy "Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home?"), the tenement pursuit leading to the arrest is punctuated with the marvelous sight of the hulking racketeer on all four shaking his rump at a stray mutt. "One-way street" scrawled on Death Row signals the second movement, in which Sternberg elucidates the image (Bancroft and Arlen, face to face in opposing cells) even as he breaks it up with countless bars and slats. "Look out for pneumonia! Might give this place a bad name..." Disembodied gun blasts and squeaky doggy toys add to the aural density, Brecht is noticeably close in the medley of executioner songs (everything from "The Northern" and "Sweet Adeline" to "Rock-a-Bye Baby" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") emanating from off-screen penal choruses. (Tully Marshall's turn as the jittery warden is an avant-garde event of its own, a virtual junction of Expressionism and vaudeville.) "Know any more jokes? This place is for killers!" Revenge finally melts into an existential chuckle; the filmmaker is already off to UFA, Buñuel in El Bruto evinces a reflection or two. With Eugenie Besserer, James Spottswood, and Fred Kohler. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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