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Josef von Sternberg: Eros and Abstraction

Saturday, February 7, 2009
6:30 p.m. An American Tragedy
Josef von Sternberg (U.S., 1931)

Sternberg’s very personal interpretation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel inspired the author to take him to court, though Dreiser lost the verdict. Sternberg later wrote, “Mr. Dreiser’s attorneys made a mistake in not calling on me to be a witness for Mr. Dreiser, for I would have agreed with him. . . . I eliminated the sociological elements which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser concerned himself.” Phillips Holmes portrays the callow youth who is drawn up the social ladder by the allure of a wealthy debutante (Frances Dee), and then faces murder charges for the drowning of his textile-worker girlfriend (Sylvia Sidney). With the help of cinematographer Lee Garmes, Sternberg transforms the setting of the textile factory into a symbol of the unpredictable mechanics of fate, whose impenetrable forces converge in the impressive trial scene that is the dramatic centerpiece of the film.

• Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser. Photographed by Lee Garmes. With Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Irving Pichel. (95 mins, B&W, 35mm, From Universal)