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Scarlet Empress (1934)


perfectpawn

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Finally got to see this and it's already become one of my favorite Pre-Code Movies. I say "Pre-Code," but technically it was released just as the Code was enforced; as readers of "Sin in Soft Focus" know, the movie cleared the Code by a fluke. If I remember it right Breen was out of the country and Sternberg was pushing for clearance so he could debut the film at some festival; a Breen lackey, under pressure from Sternberg, passed the film -- and when Breen returned and saw the picture he freaked out. But it was too late, the movie had been passed.

 

But wow. This movie has everything you could want in a Pre-Code: nudity, adult situations, torture, violence, beheadings, whippings, a guy trussed up and used as a bell clapper, risque dialog, the works. And on top of it all it's sumptiously filmed, one of the most visually arresting black and white movies out there. The whole thing takes place in this Gothic fantasy world -- ostensibly it's the story of Catherine the Great, but it occurs in a Moscow out of some dark fairy tale. Monstrous-like statues loom behind the characters as they plot against one another and shadows reign. It's a beautiful film, heavily influenced by the old German Expressionism.

 

The US DVD from Criterion is grainy and often complained about; I ordered the recent Universal DVD released in the UK -- ordered it from Amazon UK. It's inexpensive and shipping to the US isn't much, either; you just need a multi-region DVD player to play it. It was sourced from a different print but it has a little cropping, when compared to the Criterion -- however I think the Universal print just looks a lot better.

 

Here's a website comparing the Criterion and Universal discs:

 

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/FILM/DVDReviews10/the_scarlet_empress_.htm

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Watched this again over the weekend -- really great film, highly recommended. I'm sure most on here have already seen it. The cinematography, the pace, the direction, all of it was great. Acting was good, too, but it's moreso camp than serious -- witness of course the scene where Marlene Dietrich keeps putting a straw in her mouth, only for it to be yanked out, to be replaced by another, which is yanked out, to be replaced by another...again and again and again.

 

I've already got the Dietrich/Sternberg movies Morocco and Dishonored on the way -- PAL DVDs again.

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It's still worthwhile to rent the DVDs from Netflix, particularly the expensive Criterion discs. Because all TCM's broadcasts have to be dispersed over cable, and the reception is never as crisp and sharp and as full a resolution as what is on the official DVD.

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