Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Asphalt (Joe May, 1929)

Produced by Murnau, and brilliantly directed by May, this silent drama is a masterpiece of cinematography. From the opening montages, with workmen tamping down hot asphalt and the steamrollers behind them and the rain-wet streets shining in the street lights, to the traffic slanting across the street while the young policeman directs traffic, to the change in the lighting at his home after he feels he has fallen—he stands in shadow while down the hall in a halo of light his mother is busy in the kitchen, as if he were observing another world—to the expressionist shadows on the staircases toward the end — it’s magnificently conceived and photographed. The lighting effects are astonishing. The story is not profound, involving an upright young traffic policeman falling under the spell of a diamond-thieving courtesan (Bette Amman), and when they are surprised in her bedroom by her regular lover, an older diplomat, who hurls the woman to the ground, the young man defends her, and himself, with the result that the other man dies. He goes home and tells his parents he has killed a man, and the father, also a policeman, stands up, puts on his dress helmet, and they go silently downtown. But the woman intervenes, calmly incriminating herself to save the young man. She is taken away to prison, but the young man says he will wait for her, and she looks at him with eyes brimming with tears, and a smile. Amman has impossibly big dark eyes and a helmet of bobbed, curly hair. Her cloche hats give her head a sculptural look, and she also moves sometimes with astonishing sensual power, as when she throws herself on the young policeman, winding her arms around his neck, her toes clinging to his boot-tops, her huge luminous eyes inches from his. In the early part of the film she is hard and manipulative, but at the end she has been shaken by real feeling and humanized. Okay, it’s an old story, riddled with cliche, but in this treatment it works, largely because the film is so beautifully shot.

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