Shedding Light on Shadows of Film Noir

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

Shedding Light on Shadows of Film Noir


Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Kino Video's recent DVD releases of "Asphalt" and "Warning Shadows," two obscure but semilegendary German silent movies of the 1920s, are a diverting and edifying reminder that it's preferable to catch up with vintage films rather than settle for hearsay or received opinion about their content and reputations. Not that one should be surprised by the benefits of fresh observation; they also have unexpected entertainment value.

In standard critical studies such as Lotte Eisner's "The Haunted Screen" or Siegfried Kracauer's "From Caligari to Hitler," it's customary to find "Warning Shadows," made in 1923, valued more highly than "Asphalt," which dates from 1929, the twilight of the silent period.In all likelihood, that evaluation would be reversed now because "Asphalt" at its most vivid and enjoyable seems a knowing and oddly stirring prototype of film noir, the genre revered more than all others by fashion-conscious critics.

As a matter of fact, it's difficult to resist "Asphalt" even if you don't consider film noir the supreme cinematic genre.A romantic crime thriller, "Asphalt" takes disarming, suspenseful and then redemptive turns while depicting the seduction of a young Berlin traffic patrolman, Albert (Gustav Froehlich), overwhelmed by a glamorous moll named Else (Betty Amann, who begs the question, "Where has she been hiding all my moviegoing life?") after taking her into custody.

The heroine's hard-bitten opportunism softens into tenderness the morning after she lures the hero away from the path of duty.The remarkable thing about Miss Amann's embodiment of this femme fatale is that, deftly guided by director Joe May, she makes a dazzling case for Else's change of heart.It's a pleasure to find her irresistible initially as a vamp, then ultimately as a sacrificial sweetheart and stand-up gal.

Joe May (1880-1954) was one of the prominent Jewish filmmakers who had to abandon the German film industry when Adolf Hitler came to power.In the 1930s, he settled successfully in Hollywood, where he helped another movie refugee, Billy Wilder, learn the ropes while mastering a new language and professional environment. "Asphalt" doesn't appear to be one of the May pictures that employed Mr. Wilder before they both left Germany, but it's fun to believe it might have been.It radiates the outlook of men of the world who also remain astute about when to leaven their cynicism and sophistication with sentiment.

Betty Amann (1905-1990) was German-American and made her first silent movies in Hollywood.She moved to Berlin in 1928 and evidently flourished until 1933, when she and her husband also beat a timely retreat, initially to England and eventually back to the United States, where she was never a star but continued to appear in movies into the 1940s.

"Asphalt" clearly reflects the image imposed on another American beauty, Louise Brooks, when deployed as an unredeemable femme fatale by G.W. Pabst in "Pandora's Box."A year later, Miss Amann enters with similar predatory potential but transforms it into a kinder, gentler ardor.It's a little surprising that Hollywood never remade "Asphalt" with Barbara Stanwyck or Marlene Dietrich. I hadn't expected "Warning Shadows" to play as blithely as it does like a boudoir farce, to be precise. Every allusion to it had emphasized the ominous. The title itself would serve admirably for a dissertation on expressionism, the scenic tradition associated with many famous German movies of the 1920s, starting with "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. …

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