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The Moviegoer Sorrows of Satan

By Mike Prokosch

at Carpenter Center this Sunday, 7 p.m.

ONE RARELY sees completely integrated films, works whose every element contributes to a single expression. Few directors reach the maturity and control necessary to such a work. Sorrows of Satan (1927) finds Griffith once more transcending himself, leaving behind the formal means by which he ordered his earlier dramas for a simpler, more direct style. Sorrows is so unified that its mood and meaning can be assigned to no single aspect of that style.

The quality of ideality that informs every action depends on the film's even pace-but also on its soft lighting, its gentle depth, its unity of space within the frame. All these devices contribute to the unity and flow of the action. This total integration, though it lasts through the film, does not remove emotional intensity from the ongoing action. It rather lets every incident and every gesture assume tremendous weight for no formal structure opposes the actions within the frame.

The film's every turn and nuance is heightened, given immediate meaning for the character involved, as much by its understated acting as by its simple shooting style. Carol Dempster has come far from the frolics she and Lillian Gish gave Griffith's films of the earlier twenties. And Adolphe Menjou, as Satan, is the model of restraint. For him a grimace or devilish leer would be an unspeakable faux pas. But Griffith, far from leaving him a polished gentleman without depth of character, makes his slightest gestures personally significant. Menjou is eating dinner with Ricardo Cortez in the grandest of opulent restaurants. The conversation takes an odd tack. Menjou pivots his head slightly, and Griffith cuts away to a bevy of side-lit dancing girls, the floor show, advancing and twisting. This cut, inexplicable if one tries to find in it some definite comment on Menjou's character greatly enlarges the weight of his gesture, draining a world from a hint of sentiment. And Griffith cuts not on the formal qualities of the two shots, or on their content, but on the ideal power that runs through the action of both.

The action of the whole film is so restrained that secondary characters are almost completely absent; Sorrows is simply about the emotional progress of two people. Nevertheless the rare actions of people other than the principals illuminate the situation of the principals without seeming to be bits of business Griffith picked to reveal the central relation of the film. After Cortez has bought his wife-to-be a cup and saucer they stand outside a pawnshop, facing the camera, admiring the cup. A woman comes up to them, takes a look at it, and passes off to one side. We never see her face: her action is ambiguous, it is not expressly directed to the characters we know. But her action brings out their wedding-purchase and what it means to them.

GRIFFITH'S restraint, simplicity, and economy of means pay off in increased dramatic force for every action. There's less detail, but it's all out front, working directly on us. His control of secondary incidents is complete: one gasps when a man with dark glasses simply appears at Cortez's wedding and stands in front of Dempster. Our terror increases when in close-ups, her face is partly blocked by the edge of his sleeve.

In such terror we recognize the power of each simple detail, the seriousness of all the beautiful things happening before our eyes. Sorrows is no sweet moralistic drama. The moral unity it maintains is the most complex of artistic attitudes. Satan, for example, is no villain. Indeed, Griffith discarded villains after America (1924). The men who rob the hero and heroine of Isn't Life Wonderful are driven to their crime by hunger and, like the two leads, by marital love. They are as human, as noble, as anyone else. Satan goes through more intense emotional crises even than the deserted sweetheart of Sorrows. A true union of Angel and Man, he epitomizes the ideality present in the moral experience of all the characters, an ideality extending even through their wrongest acts.

The complexity of Sorrows' sustained mood and action seems at first to be betrayed by its ending. Cortez, pursued by the shadow of Satan, flees to his true love. One thinks this is a cheap trick to get them back together and achieve a happy ending. It substitutes the crudest of cardboard religious symbolism for serious moral change. But the really cheap ending would have had Cortez repent and return of his own will. Force is required to return this malcontent to the women who loves him.

As we see him in the arms of his old sweetheart, glancing terrified over his shoulder at the advancing shadow, we regret that he ever strayed from her side. For an instant the distinction between right and wrong is enforced amidst a world where all actions are beautiful. We, too, momentarily renounce that perverse attraction to the beauty of orgies and opulent settings that leads to sin.

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