George Bancroft in Thunderbolt (1929) | poster excerpt Wikipedia

Josef von Sternberg’s First Talkie Arrives Like a ‘Thunderbolt’

Is von Sternberg’s Thunderbolt the talkies’ first link between the iconography of the criminal underworld and jazz music?

Josef von Sternberg
Kino Lorber
20 July 2021

Pulled from the vaults of Universal’s Paramount holdings, the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Thunderbolt (1929) excavates Josef von Sternberg‘s first talkie into the digital daylight. It’s good to see it at last.

The film opens with an apparently well-trained black cat who pads in front of several park benches while the camera tracks along with the animal’s rambles, presumably bringing bad luck. On the benches, we see only the shins and shoes of the various couples or singles until the camera is good and ready to show us big straight-arrow Jim Moran (Richard Arlen) and his gal Ritzy (Fay Wray), all flashy in furs.

Today’s viewers won’t take much note of the fact that Jim and Ritzy register 11 gongs on a distant belltower to inform them of the time, but it’s a typical device of early talkies to announce, “Look, we’ve got sound effects!” What the viewer still notices is that, at the end of the scene, Ritzy tells a cabbie that she’ll tell him where to go in a minute, and then she’s startled when she opens the door and a hand pulls her inside, accompanied by a voice saying, “I’ll tell you where to go right now. Police headquarters.” Von Sternberg was as intrigued by sound as he was by the devices of visual storytelling in such silent films as The Docks of New York (1928), a masterpiece whose opening shots of partial bodies resembles the opening of Thunderbolt.

Even though sound mixing wasn’t yet developed, such that every sound element of a scene had to be recorded all at once, von Sternberg in Thunderbolt constructs complicated orchestrations of off-screen and on-screen sources, so that viewers are forever hearing voices and effects emanating from things they don’t see. Where some filmmakers had actors stand in the middle of a set and pronounce their lines loudly, von Sternberg insisted on having a mobile camera and complex sound design, technically limited as it was.

Achieving this partly requires an awareness of which shots can be filmed as though silent and later edited into a series, over which segments of the soundtrack can be laid. Much credit goes to mobile photographer Henry W. Gerrard, editor Helen Lewis and recorder M.M. Paggi. Maybe this sounds a bit techno-wonky for people just trying to follow a film. Please understand that for those of us fascinated by early talkies, such things separate the masters from the hacks. Von Sternberg announces his mastery from the get-go.

He does this with a melodramatic gangster story as his vehicle that, in other hands, could become tiresome. Thunderbolt is the last of von Sternberg’s pioneering gangster trilogy starring George Bancroft, after Underworld (1927) and the lost The Drag Net (1928). Bancroft also starred in The Docks of New York but not as a gangster.

As the title character of Thunderbolt Jim Lang, Bancroft’s Oscar-nominated performance is an impressive synthesis of the physical and verbal. We focus on his physicality, especially the deadly “thunderbolt” hand that works like a sledgehammer. Over the course of the drama, we deepen our understanding of Thunderbolt from a dangerous bully and violent gangster to a man with a personal moral code and well-concealed soft spots, wandering toward redemption on his own terms. In short, he’s very much a Hollywood gangster archetype.

The first comical hint of depth comes when he shows up at Moran’s apartment with the intention of killing him for stealing Ritzy, who yearns to go straight. Thunderbolt is dogged (pun intended) by a street mutt who puts the kibosh on his plans like a shaggy guardian angel. Moran gets down on all fours to cajole the dog while wagging his own hindquarters, to the amusement of a witness. Moran’s tenderness and loyalty to the dog are as touching as the dog’s loyalty.

An especially vibrant scene takes place in an illegal speakeasy called The Black Cat. It seems to be a Harlem nightclub where white gangster riff-raff go to slum, possibly owning a piece of it. The opening shot is a lengthy, carefully composed affair that starts with Thunderbolt and Ritzy entering at the top of stairs while a jazz player blows a horn in the foreground. Then the camera follows the couple down, still in the same shot, where they’re greeted by a stuttering waiter (Oscar Smith, delivering more “talkie” effects) and led to a table as off-screen voices whisper about Thunderbolt.

As historian Nick Pinkerton explains in the commentary, the scene is a festival of important African-American players. Smith, a prolific character actor, ran a shoeshine stand that functioned as an important hub of studio gossip. Louise Beavers has a prominent line as a patron. Most of all, the glittering and sexy Theresa Harris gets a star closeup singing right into the camera while Thunderbolt leers appreciatively at her, implying that he’s got no objection to what he sees. That feels like a pre-Code moment.

Is this film the talkies’ first link between the iconography of the criminal underworld and jazz music? Probably. As a cherry on top, the speakeasy sequence ends with a glittering high-contrast closeup on Ritzy, almost as fetishized as Marlene Dietrich would be in von Sternberg’s later films, while she gazes upon a glistening Tommy Gun poking into the frame and responds to raucous off-screen sounds of Thunderbolt fleeing the police outside. This is so von Sternberg.

The script by Charles and Jules Furthman and Herman J. Mankiewicz spends its last half on Death Row, a huge set designed by Hans Dreier. Not only is Thunderbolt regaled by a medley of fellow convicts and prison staff but so, in a plot twist contrived quickly enough to make your head spin, is frame-up victim Jim Moran, who also awaits execution. In those days, it took about a week to arrest someone, have a trial, and pull the switch, or that’s the evidence here. The two rivals’ relationship across the caged corridor provides suspense and character evolution.

Also seen are Eugenie Besserer as Jim’s gray-haired mom, Tully Marshall as the slouching comical warden, Fred Kohler as an irritating blowhard among the inmates, S.S. Stewart as the African-American convict with piano privileges, William L. Thorne as the strutting police chief with an office full of expressive shadows and taciturn flatfoots, James Spotswood as the motor-mouthed hoodlum who gets tossed downstairs, and Mike Donlin, Ed Brady, Jerry Mandy, and Elmer Ballard as prisoners of various accents and dialects, again foregrounding “talkie” elements.

Like many early talkies, a silent version was prepared for theatres not yet hep to the jive. That silent effort would be swell to see if it weren’t lost. Pinkerton quotes from the memory of one viewer who recalls the silent version as more powerful.

As a proto-noir film, Thunderbolt is included in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Overlook Press, 1979), although they’re not too thrilled with it. Andrew Sarris thought more highly of it, as Pinkerton discusses.

I daresay viewers looking for intense or violent excitement aren’t likely to be as bowled over as by the hard-hitting gangster dramas a few years later, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) or Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), or prison pictures like Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1931). Still, von Sternberg’s gangster cycle established the tropes for all of them and this film remains engaging on its own terms.

Although this print has obviously suffered damage with vertical lines streaking across the frame now and then, this important title can finally be studied by fans of crime movies, early talkies, Hollywood auteurs, and Fay Wray. It’s nice to be spoiled.

RATING 7 / 10