Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Monday, January 7, 2008


SUNRISE (1927/U.S.). Director: F. W. Murnau. NOTE: This review describes key plot points of the movie.

A beautifully photographed and well-directed, cinematic film from Murnau, but this is also a little too dopey and irritating to quite hit the category of masterpiece, although it certainly has its moments. George O'Brien is a farmer who is tempted by a vamp from the city (Margaret Livingstone) who tells him that if his wife (Janet Gaynor) were only to “drown” they could be together forever. O'Brien is at first outraged by the mere suggestion, but after a few more kisses he dutifully rows his wife out to the middle of a lake and stands above her with murder in mind; only the distraction of a bell saves the woman's life. The best protracted sequence in the movie shows what happens after O'Brien, who can't bring himself to kill Gaynor, rows back to shore and the heart-broken, horrified Gaynor runs off to a trolley that takes both of them to the city. Gaynor's shock, desperation, and despair are almost palpable.

First of all, though, we have to wonder why either O'Brien or the hotsy totsy he was sleeping with thought it necessary to dispose of the poor wife. Sure, her mother could look after their little child, but why get rid of Gaynor in the first place? Couldn't O'Brien have simply done what tens of thousands of other husbands have done and run off to the city and presumable eternal bliss with the vamp?

O'Brien eventually convinces Gaynor that he is full of repent over his almost-murder, and the film abruptly changes into – get this – a romantic comedy as the two have a second honeymoon in the city, going to a dance, a carnival, eating dinner, even running after a cute little piglet that causes havoc in a kitchen. These sequences, like everything else in the film, are extremely well-done, even amusing, but they're completely out of tone with the mood that has been established since the beginning. And frankly, you keep hoping to see more of that mean, sexy vamp.

Then the film turns tragic as the happy couple return home across the lake (but why exactly do they have to cross the lake when he rowed backwards to get to shore after the murder attempt?) and a storm comes up, washing both of them overboard. O'Brien survives, Gaynor is apparently killed, and a distraught O'Brien nearly strangles his lover until he learns that Gaynor has actually survived. The vamp returns dejectedly to the city, and the husband and wife wake up to a brand new sunrise with their child.

The trouble with the movie is that no wife could ever look at her husband in the same way after she realizes that he had made a conscious and planned decision to kill her (and it would take more than a couple of hours to get over it). You're never convinced that O'Brien won't eventually want to hook up with the vamp again. Yet we have to remember that Murnau's films were often like poetic fairy tales [for instance The Last Laugh], so these criticisms have to be taken with a grain of salt, although it is also probably true that Murnau wanted you to take this film in perfect seriousness. That is not possible to do. But it is possible to appreciate its many moments of beauty and power, its inventive approach to many sequences, the excellent photography by Karl Struss, fine acting by the leads, and a highly effective musical score (in the later sound version currently being shown on Fox Movie Channel). Despite its glaring flaws, it is easy to see why Sunrise is much beloved in some quarters.

Verdict: Definitely worth a look. ***.

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