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.