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July 20, 2021



Josef von Sternberg - 1929
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The best sequence in Thunderbolt has little to do with the basic narrative, but is revealing of what was allowed in the pre-Code sound era. The gangster known as Thunderbolt has taken his girlfriend, Ritzie, to a nightclub called The Black Cat. This is no Cotton Club, but apparently a black staffed nightclub with black entertainers but a racially mix clientele. We first see a small troupe of dancers performing on stage. Von Sternberg cuts back to Thunderbolt and Ritzie arguing. A singer is heard off camera. Thunderbolt and Ritzie leave their table to converse in a back room. A cut is made to a shot of the the singer, the uncredited Theresa Harris performing "Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home". Before going into the room, Thinderbolt takes a moment to slightly leer at Harris. Putting this in the context of the time, it was unusual for a Hollywood production to not only suggest that a black woman might be sexually attractive, but that she would be attractive to a white man.

It could well be that some of the cliches of the gangster film originated with Thunderbolt and the screenplay by Jules and Charles Furthman, with dialogue by Herman J. Mankiewicz. George Bancroft plays the title role. Jules Furthman previously wrote The Docks of New York, while Charles wrote the story for Underworld, both also starring Bancroft directed by von Sternberg. While the silent films are gripping, Thunderbolt gets clunky. This is not simply due to being an early sound film, where the delivery of the dialogue is stilted, but the plot of Ritzie trying to escape the life of being associated with a gangster by leaving Thunderbolt for the upright Bob. As Ritzie, Fay Wray was a few years from her brief career peak, while Richard Arlen as Bob never got much traction in the move to talkies. The film was also a career peak for George Bancroft who was considered Oscar worthy for his performance.

Sternberg's hand is in place visually. There are heightened shadows in several shots and the patterns made by prison bars, the bars of a bank teller's window, and apartment stair railings. In one shot taking place at the Black Cat club, two men are at a table conversing, the face of one of the men obscured by the frame of a stage riser. There are several shots taking place in the prison's death row where characters are separated by the prison bars, and the face is not fully visible. The opening shot is most clearly from the original silent version of the film, with the camera at street level following a black cat as it passes along the feet of several couples necking on park benches. The film takes a strange turn with the other animal character, a stray dog which follows Thunderbolt around, giving away his location to the police, and then following him to prison.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary includes the history of the making of the film, its reception at the time, and von Sternberg's use of sound. This is the first time that Thunderbolt has been released in a home video version. Sadly, there is no silent version to make a comparison, with only Pinkerton relaying that a viewer of the time who saw both attested to Bancroft having a more "powerful" performance in the silent film. The shots with the traveling camera were done with sound added later, providing an idea of the activity off-screen. The film had been allowed to lapse into obscurity. David Bordwell has written about having a 16mm print, and the film receiving a rare screening on TCM. There is no information about the source print but there is marked wear in one scene involving Bob and his mother. Pinkerton mentions Robert Warshow's essay, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero", citing George Bancroft as setting the stage for Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, among others. Thunderbolt can be seen as a transitional work made during the shift in filmmaking technology, but also as the final work by someone who had a hand in inventing the American gangster film, only to leave it for more exotic places a short time later.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 20, 2021 06:01 AM