Prepare to be utterly taken aback by Paul Fejos’ Lonesome, a little-known silent-talkie hybrid from 1928 that’s enjoyed a steadily building reputation among cinephiles since its rediscovery of sorts several decades ago. Imagine the virtuosic camerawork of Murnau, the devastatingly perceptive view of the human condition a la King Vidor, the energy and vitality in shooting and cutting of Vertov. It might sound like hyperbole, but Lonesome isn’t the product of golden age Hollywood enthusiasm run amok. This is the real deal — a stunning display of visual storytelling that you’ll wonder why hasn’t been touted alongside Man With a Movie Camera, Sunrise and The Crowd as a supreme achievement of both city symphony and intimate study of human isolation.
The film stars Glenn Tyron as Jim and Barbara Kent as Mary, two cogs in the massive industrial machine of New York City. They both live in small, dingy hotel rooms and both occupy monotonous, menial jobs — he as a factory worker and she as a switchboard operator. The film occupies dual tracks in these early moments, following both characters through their separate but quite similar routines, each bound to the constraints of the clock — a stunning montage sequence cuts back and forth between them with propulsive rhythm, with the face of a ticking clock superimposed over the image all the while.
Fortunately for both, it’s the Fourth of July holiday and work lets out early. But as each one sees coworkers pair up and head off for the day, both are confronted with their own pervasive loneliness. In their cramped dwellings, a magazine or a record might offer some temporary respite, but there’s no getting around their fundamental isolation.
Still, all is not lost. The allure of Coney Island entices Jim and Mary to the roller coasters and the beach, and once their paths do cross, their attraction is both swift and lovely. After both initially pretend to be wealthy country club types, the truth is revealed to relief on all sides. This section of the film is packed with scenes that are some of the finest in silent cinema. Just two examples: A rush through the overwhelming crowd, streamers and confetti enveloping the frame, Jim right on Mary’s heels as he struggles to maintain sight of her — sublime cinematic movement and vitality. Secondly: Color-tinted backdrop of the Coney Island spectacle, the lovers melting away from the madness into their own private world — a scene both technically experimental and purely romantic.
Lonesome is the work of a brilliant visual artist, and one hopes the Criterion Collection’s amazing Blu-ray set will be the gateway that introduces a huge audience to Fejos’ transcendent piece of cinema.
The Blu-ray Disc
Lonesome is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio. This digital restoration, sourced from a variety of elements, is very admirable, recreating original intertitles, restoring the soundtrack and bringing stability and clarity to the image. The condition of the source materials certainly limits the presentation to some extent, as damage of all sorts pops up throughout, but overall, the film looks fantastic — fine detail is abundant, grain structure is heavy but unadulterated, grayscale features excellent separation and the image always looks film-like. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is also very limited, with a persistent low hiss and frequent light pops and crackle. It’s not unpleasant to listen to though, and the film’s three dialogue sequences are perfectly understandable.
The two major supplements here are Fejos’ two subsequent films for Universal — an incomplete version of The Last Performance, a silent starring the great Conrad Veidt as a magician pining after his assistant, and a reconstructed sound version of Broadway, an ambitious musical with a Technicolor finale. Also included is a commentary track on Lonesome by historian Richard Koszarski, a 1963 visual essay featuring audio clips from an interview with Fejos and a brief interview with cinematographer Hal Mohr about the camera crane used in Broadway.
The package also includes a booklet with insightful essays by Phillip Lopate and Graham Petrie on the film and Fejos’ career, as well as a reprint of a 1962 interview with Fejos from shortly before he died.
The Bottom Line
Absolutely a must-see in every sense of the term, Lonesome is the kind of film you’re astonished hasn’t crossed your path sooner, and the Criterion Blu-ray edition is very fine indeed.