What a magnificent Criterion discovery, a long since forgotten (at least in mainstream cinephilia) silent masterpiece comparable to the revered 'Sunrise' or 'Man with a Movie Camera'. A whirling dervish of a film, under the direction of eccentric cinema Renaissance man Paul Fejos combining an extreme mobile camera with innovative sound and colour technique at this unique juncture of cinema technology.
Lonesome (1929) dir. Paul Fejos
Starring: Barbara Kent, Glenn Tryon
By Alan Bacchus
It’s the 4th of July in New York and Fejos magnificently captures the vivaciousness of the city back in the roaring '20s through the eyes of two singles, a man and a woman, who through serendipity and happenstance find, lose and find each other again on this one rambunctious day in the city.
To begin, Fejos intercuts the routine actions of a man, Jim (Tyron), and a woman, Mary (Kent), both lonely single cogs in the wheel of the rat race of American industry. Jim is a factory worker and Mary is a telephone operator. Fejos choreographs their actions through montage, thus foreshadowing their eventual meeting. On a whim they both decide to go to the beach at Coney Island. Of course they meet and proceed to spend the day together drinking in the spectacle of the midway, the water and the throngs of people, all the while falling in love.
But when a storm hits sending the crowd under cover, the raging mob separates the pair. As in the beginning, Fejos intercuts the frantic search by each of them in the hopes of finding the other and rekindling their romance.
One of the delights of the silent film era has always been the emphasis on the visual, and in this case the inventiveness of the camera as an expressionistic storytelling device. This was also 1928 and the end of the silent era, a period when some of the most dynamic and stylish films were being made. Comparisons to the effect of the camera movement in Murnau’s Sunrise are appropriate. From the subtle but wholly modern motion of the camera following the day-to-day mundane activities of Jim and Mary in the opening moments to the complex gymnastics manoeuvres in the Coney Island sequences, it’s a phantasm of visual splendor from start to finish. Fejos even places his camera on a rollercoaster, which makes for a truly awesome action sequence.
Fejos' experimentation with colour tinting portends to have the effect of a 3D enhancement or those set piece Imax sequences in The Dark Knight. The ferry wheel sequence, for instance, is particularly astonishing with pulsing lights like the vibrant neon hues from Blade Runner.
The entire film has its own soundtrack of music and effects, but Fejos shoots two dialogue scenes with sync sound. The effect here is most distracting, especially the squeaky voice cadence of the actors. But who cares? The marvel of the picture is its ambition, from an independent filmmaker on the fringe of the studio system, much like the positions of today’s ambitious independents such as James Cameron and George Lucas.
Lonesome is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Also included are two other equally ambitious features from Fejos - 1929’s 'The Performance' and a 1929 sound musical 'Broadway'.