Mention F.W. Murnau and discussion inevitably drifts towards his obvious masterpieces: his German Expressionism classic Nosferatu, his near dialogue-free (without title cards, anyway) The Last Laugh, or his first American film Sunrise, winner of a unique Academy Award at the first ever Oscar ceremony in 1929 and often cited as one of the greatest films ever made.
City Girl, then, seems the forgotten child of Murnau’s oeuvre. His penultimate film before he died in a road accident at the age of just 42, its release as the latest Masters of Cinema restoration offers up the opportunity to take in its charms.
Released in 1930, and since seen by critics as a film taken out of the hands of Murnau by the Fox studio to be turned into a bastardised half-silent, half-talkie, it arrives on Blu-ray with a high definition transfer of the original silent version and a new score. And it’s gorgeous. Partly a result of the Masters of Cinema treatment, but mostly down to Murnau’s incredible talent behind the camera.
He continues his themes from Sunrise here: a tale of love, the conflicting lives of a city girl and a country boy, and a marriage that’s heading for the rocks only to be rekindled in dramatic fashion. Charles Farrell’s Lem heads into the city to sell his family’s wheat crop, wherein he meets Mary Duncan’s Kate, a put-upon waitress who dreams of a life in the country. The two fall in love, move to the country, but it’s far from the dream life she’s anticipating.
In Sunrise, Murnau painted the city influence as a corrosive one – the city girl in that story trying to convince her country lover to murder his wife so that they can sell his farm and be done with country life. He starts in a similar vein here, painting a picture of city life as one populated by repugnant men and mechanical routine.
Yet, Kate’s escape to the country bears the same trappings, turning this into a story of the power of love to conquer all. A romantic drama in essence, with occasional moments of comedy thrown in. Yet ,this label, so often one that strikes fear into me, belies the pace on show here. Murnau’s technical virtuosity has never been in doubt, but here he shows how great a storyteller he is. City Girl doesn’t drag for a second, despite its somewhat slender story and small cast of characters.
It’s helped by Christopher Caliendo’s lively score, but beneath it lies the majesty of a director rightly claimed as one of cinema’s most influential. You can pick out moments almost at will that serve as inspirations for a legion of filmmakers to come: uses of depth of field and busy frames that Orson Welles would expand upon in Citizen Kane, painterly shots of country fields Terence Malick’s Days Of Heaven seem founded upon.
There are plot machinations in here that, even in 1930, would have felt familiar to audiences of romance films – a couple trying to find each other to express their love for one another but missing each other by seconds, a suspicion of another man that never is. Yet, in Murnau’s hands they feel real and sincere. They make the heart jump rather than the eyes roll.
Sunrise nabs the plaudits, but City Girl deserves just as many, perhaps even more so. It has a warmth that his Oscar winner often lacked. For all its wonder, Sunrise doesn’t inspire the repeat viewing that City Girl does.
Some may baulk at the sentimentality, but you’d have to be a cold, cold cynic not to be touched by City Girl‘s central romance. It’s just one of the many sterling achievements that mark the film as another shining example of the genius of F.W. Murnau.
The cleaned up print looks about as shiny as a 80-year-old film can. It’s crisp and remarkably free of grain, leaving you able to enjoy the film and Murnau’s terrific camera angles and montages.
There’s just one proper extra, a commentary by film scholar David Kalat. He often sounds like he’s reading from a pre-written essay, his voice a bit too formal and stilted. But he seems to know just about everything about Murnau and his films, offering a comprehensive overview of the history of the production together with his own interesting critiques. Tough to listen to all in one go, though.
There’s an advertised 40-page collectors booklet that didn’t come with the preview disc supplied, but it sounds really nice.
The Film: The Disc:
City Girl will be released on Blu-ray on February 22 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.