Full-bleed theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Josef von Sternberg|
|Produced by||B. P. Fineman|
|Written by|| Charles Furthman |
|Starring|| George Bancroft |
|Cinematography||Henry W. Gerrard|
|Edited by||Helen Lewis|
|Color process||Black and white|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
Thunderbolt (also released as At The Gates of Death) is a 1929 American Pre-Code proto-noir film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring George Bancroft, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen, Tully Marshall and Eugenie Besserer. It tells the story of a criminal, facing execution, who wants to kill the man in the next cell for being in love with his former girlfriend.
The film was adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (titles) and Josef von Sternberg from the story by Jules and Charles Furthman.
Bancroft was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Thunderbolt Jim Lang (George Bancroft), wanted on robbery and murder charges, ventures out with his girl, "Ritzy" (Fay Wray), to a Harlem nightclub, where she informs him that she is going straight. During a raid on the club, Thunderbolt escapes. His gang shadows Ritzy and reports that she is living with Mrs. Moran (Eugenie Besserer), whose son, Bob (Richard Arlen), a bank clerk, is in love with Ritzy. Fearing for Bob's safety, Ritzy engineers a police trap for Thunderbolt; he escapes but is later captured, tried, and sentenced to be executed at Sing Sing. From the death house, he successfully plots to frame Bob in a bank robbery and killing. Bob is placed in the facing cell, and guards frustrate Thunderbolt's attempts to get to his rival. When Ritzy marries Bob in the death house, Thunderbolt confesses his part in Bob's conviction. He plots to kill the boy on the night of his execution, but instead at the last minute his hand falls on Bob's shoulder in a gesture of friendship.
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Thunderbolt was Sternberg’s first film using synchronized sound technology. Two versions of the film were produced, including a silent version for theatres that had yet to be adapted to sound.
The technical innovation of synchronized dialogue into film raised concerns among directors as to its potential influence on the visual techniques available to directors. Internationally, filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Hitchcock and Vertov wished to avoid oppressive forms of ”theatrically-influenced dialogue” even as audiences clamored for the novelty of naturalistic speech.
Sternberg welcomed sound as a means to achieve complete control over his picture - "no longer at the mercy of movie house organists" - and eschewing any "atmospheric" or background music. Thunderbolt (as well as his next three sound films) used source music that arose directly from the mise en scène.
Sternberg experimented with asynchronous sound effects which served to augment or supplement the visual effects, or as he framed the process, “To be correctly and effectively used, sound had to bring to the image a quality other than what the lens included, a quality out of the range of the image. Sound had to counterpoint or compensate the image, add to it – not subtract from it.”Throughout Thunderbolt, Sternberg “uses sound to paint audio images” through “complementary and contrapuntal juxtaposition.” Rather than the external and complementary musical accompaniment of silent films, Sternberg’s scores arise organically with the mise-en-scène and form a key component of the film.
The music off-screen does not recede in deference to the on-screen dialogue, but competes with it. Off-screen, voices comment on the visual action, but are not identified visually until later in the film sequence, contributing to an “unrealistic cadence” that characterizes the film’s dialogue.Film historian Andrew Sarris describes it as "a startling experiment... his use of sound and music for mood effects, and the very unreality of his style seems to justify the unusual density of his sound track." Sternberg also uses sound expressionistically, such as the erratic start-stop of a sewing machine or the “sinister” squeaking of a dog’s ball toy, squeezed by the condemned criminal in the hours before his death.
Mordaunt Hall writing for The New York Times (June 21, 1929) described the screenplay as “a musical comedy plot striving to masquerade as drama.”Film critic Andrew Sarris would echo that assessment in 1966, writing “Thunderbolt is, in some respects, as much a musical as a melodrama.”
Film historian Janet Bergstrom points out that “reviewers were relieved that Sternberg had returned to the gangster genre he had invented and made popular", as in this review entitled “Thunderbolt Registers Hit” from Norbert Lusk of the Los Angeles Times (June 30, 1929):
”Those who applauded [Sternberg’s] Underworld and The Drag Net find new pleasure well worth their patronage…As in previous undertakings of Josef von Sternberg, lighting and direction have brought forth critical praise though in some quarters the observation is made that these more or less synthetic crook stories are unworthy of his ability. However, there is no denying the skill he employs in assembling the various elements of box-office entertainment…”
German filmmaker Ludwig Berger contacted Sternberg via telegram with fulsome praise: "I saw your film Thunderbolt and congratulate you with all my heart. It is the first fully realized and artistically accomplished Sound film. Bravo!"
Andrew Sarris was an American film critic, a leading proponent of the auteur theory of film criticism.
The Docks of New York is a 1928 American silent drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson, and Olga Baclanova. The movie was adapted by Jules Furthman from the John Monk Saunders story The Dock Walloper.
Morocco is a 1930 American pre-Code romantic drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, and Adolphe Menjou. Based on the novel Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny and adapted by Jules Furthman, the film is about a cabaret singer and a Legionnaire who fall in love during the Rif War, but their relationship is complicated by his womanizing and the appearance of a rich man who is also in love with her. The film is famous for the scene in which Dietrich performs a song dressed in a man's tailcoat and kisses another woman, both of which were rather scandalous for the period.
Josef von Sternberg born Jonas Sternberg, 29 May 1894 – 22 December 1969) was an Austrian-American filmmaker whose career successfully spanned the transition from the silent to the sound era, during which he worked with most of the major Hollywood studios. He is best known for his film collaboration with actress Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, including the highly regarded Paramount/UFA production, The Blue Angel (1930).
The Last Command is a 1928 silent film directed by Josef von Sternberg, and written by John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz from a story by Lajos Bíró. Star Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the 1929 ceremony for his performances in this film and The Way of All Flesh, the only year that multiple roles were considered. In 2006, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for the National Film Registry. The supporting cast includes Evelyn Brent and William Powell.
The Blue Angel is a 1930 German tragicomedic film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Kurt Gerron. Written by Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller and Robert Liebmann – with uncredited contributions by Sternberg – it is based on Heinrich Mann's 1905 novel Professor Unrat and set in Weimar Germany. The Blue Angel presents the tragic transformation of a respectable professor to a cabaret clown and his descent into madness. The film is the first feature-length German full-talkie and brought Dietrich international fame. In addition, it introduced her signature song, Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Liebmann's "Falling in Love Again ". It is considered to be a classic of German cinema.
Underworld is a 1927 American silent crime film directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film launched Sternberg's eight-year collaboration with Paramount Pictures, with whom he would produce his seven films with actress Marlene Dietrich. Journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht won an Academy Award for Best Original Story.
Macao is a 1952 black-and-white film noir adventure directed by Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray. The drama features Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix, and Gloria Grahame.
Eugenie Besserer was an American actress who starred in silent films and features of the early sound motion-picture era, beginning in 1910. Her most prominent role is that of the title character's mother in the first talkie film, The Jazz Singer.
Dishonored is a 1931 pre-Code romantic spy film made by Paramount Pictures. It was co-written, directed and edited by Josef von Sternberg. The costume design was by Travis Banton. The film stars Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Gustav von Seyffertitz and Warner Oland.
Sergeant Madden is a 1939 film noir forerunner directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Wallace Beery. The supporting cast in this dark police crime drama, noted for its imaginative and evocative cinematography, includes Tom Brown, Laraine Day, Alan Curtis, and Marc Lawrence.
Jet Pilot is a 1957 American Cold War romance film directed by Josef von Sternberg, and starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh. It was written and produced by Jules Furthman, and presented by Howard Hughes. Filming lasted more than eighteen months, beginning in 1949. The last day of shooting was in May 1953, but the Technicolor film was kept out of release by Hughes due to his tinkering until October 1957, by which time Hughes had sold RKO. Universal-International ended up distributing Jet Pilot.
The Case of Lena Smith is a 1929 American silent drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Esther Ralston and James Hall, and released by Paramount Pictures.
Anatahan (アナタハン), also known as The Saga of Anatahan, is a 1953 black-and-white Japanese film war drama directed by Josef von Sternberg. The World War II Japanese holdouts on Anatahan also inspired a 1998 novel, Cage on the Sea.
Crime and Punishment is a 1935 American crime film directed by Josef von Sternberg for Columbia Pictures. The screenplay was adapted by Joseph Anthony and S.K. Lauren from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1866 novel of the same title. The film stars Peter Lorre in the lead role of Raskolnikov.
Paramount on Parade is a 1930 all-star American pre-Code revue released by Paramount Pictures, directed by several directors including Edmund Goulding, Dorothy Arzner, Ernst Lubitsch, Rowland V. Lee, A. Edward Sutherland, Lothar Mendes, Otto Brower, Edwin H. Knopf, Frank Tuttle, and Victor Schertzinger—all supervised by the production supervisor, singer, actress, and songwriter Elsie Janis.
The Coast of Folly is a 1925 American silent drama film directed by Allan Dwan and starring Gloria Swanson in a dual role as mother and daughter. Richard Arlen had a small part in the film but his scenes were cut before release. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Coningsby William Dawson, and adapted for the screen by James Ashmore Creelman.
The Drag Net, also known as The Dragnet, is a 1928 American silent crime drama produced by Famous Players-Lasky and distributed by Paramount Pictures based on the story "Nightstick" by Oliver H.P. Garrett. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg from an original screen story and starring George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent.
An American Tragedy (1931) is a pre-Code drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg. It was produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy and the 1926 play adaptation. These were based on the historic 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York.
The Sea God is a 1930 American pre-Code adventure film written and directed by George Abbott. The film stars Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, Eugene Pallette, Ivan Simpson, Maurice Black, and Bob Perry. The film was released on September 13, 1930, by Paramount Pictures.