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The Semiannual Road Trip

April 19th, 2005 (04:50 pm)

© 2005 D. Gordon
(Note: first posted at Third Eye Film Society.)

BTW, I saw Asphalt in DC on Sunday.

Joe May, the director, was a product of the renowned Universum-Film AG Studios (much more commonly known as UfA) outside of Berlin, and this movie proves that UfA was a fertile incubator of cinematic creativity. May was an extremely prominent director at the studios (Fritz Lang was his script boy). He overlapped with Lang, F.W. Murnau, and G.W. Pabst; Alfred Hitchcock spent a spell at the studio as well, and the two must have interacted. Asphalt itself was the last German silent released, and it benefits from all the accumulated knowledge of those directors and the German Expressionist period itself. The same kinds of shots that appear in Lang, Murnau, Pabst, and Hitchcock appear in May's picture. This was the first German movie to use a crane, but those shots really duplicated scenes in Murnau's The Last Laugh. There's a scarcity of intertitles, and more of a reliance on visuals, that reminded me of several Expressionist movies. There are direct lines between May's heroine and Hitchcock's heroine in Blackmail (also 1929 - and the situation, if not the motivations, are somewhat similar). May had been cross-pollinating with the best.

The female lead, Betty Amann, starred in this film about a year after Louise Brooks had redefined women in German cinema with Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Betty's got the hairdo (slightly modified), she's got arresting eyes, some of the simmering sexuality; but while she's meant to be Louise, she's not. She's not projecting the same quality that Louise had, and in fact she's the cause, instead of the calm center, of all the mayhem around her. The accompanyist (Dennis James) gave a quick introduction to the movie, which presented Betty more as a Brooks / Swanson hybrid, and that I could see (especially having seen Sunset Blvd the night before). Amann, like Swanson, is willing to actively push men around, see how far she can provoke them, and go after what she wants. That's not quite where Louise was coming from.

Other notables included Gustav Fröhlich, who starred in Metropolis, and Hans Albers, who would star in Münchhausen 14 years later. Fröhlich definitely projects the requisite goodness of a young, earnest policeman, and he's very good. Not sure I would say this was his role of a lifetime (especially compared to Metropolis). Albers has a small role early on and is easy to miss.

This movie is also known as the first noir film, but I'm not sure I would go that far. There are elements - the femme fatale (or just plain dame) who's bad, then good, then bad again; the good man led astray; even the mood-setting shots (the film opens with a wonderful shot of roadworkers pounding - well, it really looked like tar but I guess it was asphalt) - but no true ties to the noirs just over the horizon in Talkie Land. It made me wonder, however, whether German Expressionism isn't one of the parents of noir.

And while the movie was entertaining, I wouldn't say that May outshone the other directors' works by a long shot. May apparently was very popular in 1920s Babelsburg; but soon after making this film he departed for Hollywood, where he wasn't able to break out of the B-film ranks.