Welcome to the first post of the blahblahblahgay/what indie nights? noir-a-thon, we are starting with a classic proto-noir from 1930 The Blue Angel.
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Starring: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich
Country of Origin: Germany/USA
Synopsis: A respected high school professor follows his students to a speakeasy and meets sexy performer Lola Lola. He becomes infatuated with her and his carefully ordered life slowly spirals out of control.
What Indie Nights? review
Greetings, Blahblahblahgay readers! I'm Leah from What Indie Nights?, and I'm super happy to be joining in the epic, monstrous beast that is this Noir-a-thon.
Our journey begins in a little town in Weimar (that is, barely pre-Nazi) Germany, where a saucy cabaret singer is about to rock the world of one stolid, middle-class Professor Rath.
The Blue Angel falls well outside of the traditionally recognised 'Classic Noir' period, filmed and set at the end of an era of economic growth and social relaxations. Marlene Dietrich's career-making Lola-Lola is a seedy nightclub singer and dancer who's not afraid to show a lot of leg, and her character is cheeky, funny and, to my mind, inherently likeable.
'What?' I hear you gasp - the evil seductress Lola-Lola, the architect of men's downfalls, that harpy vamp without a soul or a care for the hearts she breaks? Likeable!?
The consistent portrayal of Lola-Lola as heartless temptress, throwing poor innocent men away like day-old frilly knickers to me smacks of condemnation after the fact - years of femme fatale characters and dark-rainy-night noirs skewed film-goers' perceptions so that when they watched this one, they read her as a character that they knew, rather than the one she played. As far as I could tell, she was a smart showgirl, comfortable in herself, who had control of the environment around her, and who wanted a better life for herself. The slut.
As Toby will elaborate on below, the architect of Professor Rath's downfall is no-one but himself. As soon as he walks into the Blue Angel nightclub he is lost - his weaknesses, previously hidden behind middle-class doors, are splayed out for all to see, and his students and colleagues treat him openly with the contempt they have always harboured secretly.
The masterful portrayal of his downfall is pure noir, regardless of its arbiter. From beginning the film as a respectable Professor, Rath ends it painted as a clown on stage, his entire hometown laughing at him while his wife is apparently betraying him backstage. The slow spiral of morality, behaviour and desire ever downwards towards ruin is basically the template for a thousand future Professor Raths.
What a film to start our Noir-a-thon with! Certainly an excellent proto-noir, excellently shadowing (pardon the pun) the movement to come.
With Marlene's name over the title, the iconic picture of her in top hat and suspenders the only one on most DVD cases and the tagline on my box reading "heartless, soulless, she's the very essence of evil" I was expecting something different to what went down. My noir experience taught me to expect that The Blue Angel was the Marlene Dietrich character as opposed to the nightclub she performed in and that the movie would be about her.
That is not the case, this movie is all about the superb Emil Jannings (winner of the very first Oscar - did you know you used to win the award for being the best actor in at least two pictures in the same year?) His portrait of a respectable man losing his way is one of the finest pieces of acting I remember seeing, transforming himself over the course of the movie in to someone you might not recognise. Seeing the dejected figure he becomes in the final scenes is really quite disturbing.
Ordinarily you would blame the femme fatale for the downfall of the protagonist but Lola Lola is a much stronger person than the professor. She is not the evil temptress the tagline would have you believe, she finds the awkward professor charming and it's obvious that she really cares for him in the beginning. It is the weakness of the professor that is his downfall. He loses his job because of his relationship and the self respect he had just drains slowly away, allowing himself to be a kept man and going back on his principals, all in an attempt to hold on to the way Lola Lola makes him feel.
Obviously I can't let the review end without mentioning Marlene in her star making performance. It's a different type of sexuality than we've become used to but she is so casual with it, knowing the effect she has on people, that it is no surprise to me at all that she became a huge star. The simple act of performing the same song multiple times to show the change in mood and growth of the character is used to good effect with Dietrich making subtle changes to each performance.
Thematically there's the use of the Portraits and Doubles motif that would become quite popular, Lola's boss being almost a mirror image of the professor when they first meet amongst many scenes shot around actual mirrors and the Sexual Pathology aspect is clear with the professor allowing his infatuation to ruin his life. Certainly at no point would you believe that there was going to be a happy ending.
Considering this was made a mere two years after the first talkie the technological leaps that had been made were incredible yet there are still storytelling aspects that need tightening, mostly the opening sequence introducing the professor at great length which feels totally irrelevant as you are watching.
Initially I scored this a 7 but on reflection it is a lot more impressive and I have upgraded my assessment to an 8.
Excitement, adventure, a noir requires not these things. Next up is the Fritz Lang masterpiece 'M' from 1931. Don't forget to leave some blah below. And head over to What Indie Nights? for more of her thoughts and images on each film as the noir-a-thon gathers pace.
A few of you wonderful regular readers have shown an interest in joining us on this epic quest, if you have a capsule piece you want us to include for any of the movies let me know.