Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Vamp in ASPHALT (1929)

After Lulu, came Else.  And I bet you've never met her.  But you should.

Last month, I was able to watch Pandora's Box one night on Turner Classic Movies.  That's the famous 1929 silent classic directed by G. W. Pasbt.  Louise Brooks established her place in film history as the lovely, seductive woman whose uninhibited ways could bring out the desire in not just men.  Unleashed desires did not always bring about a happy ending.  Here's Brooks as the siren Lulu.

Louise Brooks had a look that the camera loved.  Her bobbed hair became the talented actress' signature.
I recently saw another film, also silent, also having a brunette vamp as its lead female.  1929's modern story, Asphalt, was one of Germany's last silent films as Hollywood had taught movies how to talk and that revolution of new technology was a sound that would be heard all over the world.

I studied and saw Pandora's Box for the first time in one of my university film classes.  Asphalt, a melodrama, is not the classic that Pabst's film is, but Betty Amann sure does make this creatively shot film worth a look.  She's a bad girl who leads a good traffic cop astray.

We see her use her devious vamp skills on an older gentlemen who works in a jewelry store.   I found Betty Amann as Else in this drama to be just as interesting a film personality as Louise Brooks.  She's styled a different way than Brooks was as Lulu in Pandora's Box.  The look works.

Director Joe May lets the camera rest of her face as she flirts with the older clerk.  She not just flirting with him.  The director allows her to flirt with the audience too.  She seduces us with her charm and beauty.

In this film, the camera lingers on actors' faces and on scenes in a way that gives you more information about the character and gives the scenes more tension.  For instance, the young traffic cop gets up and gets ready for work.  He lives with his parents.  His mother is a careworn, gentle woman whom he loves very much and that love is returned.  They hug,  They kiss.  Then there's the grizzled-looking, militaristic father.  He never stands to hug or kiss his son.  His son stands right before him and father just looks at him.  Not moving a hand towards him.  Not making the effort to show any physical display of affection.  And he's a man of few words.  They way the father remains seated as if he's glued to the chair makes you think "What's that all about?"  Along with the smart cinematography, we get a psychological approach to the characters that lifts the melodrama.

There's also the opening scene in which of trio of street pickpockets steal a woman's wallet out of her purse while she's watching a Berlin department store window demonstration.  That crime sets up the Berlin underworld tone of Asphalt.
The vamp gets caught trying to rip off a gem.  The traffic cop comes into the shop to see what's wrong. He's taking her to the police station when she uses her vamp skills again, plus some play acting, and coaxes him to take her to her apartment instead of the police station.  Else cries that she's been bad but she'll be good now because she fears the mean streets.

He takes her to her apartment so she can collect a few things.  Once there, she sits on the bed and pretends to cry some more.  When he searches another room, she ramps the vamp up a notch by getting into bed.  That complicates matters for him.  She knew it would.

When the good cop attempts to leave, she jumps out of bed and she's on him like white on rice.

Betty Amann gives such a bold and energetic performance with a brazen sexuality that she makes this bad dame a good time to watch.  It's a strong performance.  When we first see her, she appears demure and ladylike.  But Amann reveals an unmistakable touch of the gutter that's appropriate for this underworld story.
Just like Louise Brooks, she had a face that the camera loved.  Amann was born in Germany.  Her parents were American.  Like Brooks, she grew up in the U.S.   She didn't become famous like Brooks did but, I feel, she delivered a performance worth watching.  Hollywood should have utilized her in some of the Warner Brothers or Paramount crime dramas of the 1930s & 40s.  Unfortunately, Hollywood didn't.
See if you can find the subtitled Asphalt on DVD.  This is the kind of product that young film hopefuls  today -- directors and actors -- should watch and study.

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