Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Lonesome may be as strong a case for auteurism as can be found: despite working with an inert story, flat characters, and shallow themes, director Paul Fejos poured his creative heart and soul into the film. After many decades of obscurity for both it and its makers, the film has developed a reputation almost exclusively thanks to its director's vision, which is ingenious and batshit-crazy.

Factory worker Jim (Glenn Tryon) and telephone operator Mary (Barbara Kent), two shy and lonely New Yorkers, meet each other at Coney Island during a day off from the mechanical drone of their jobs. While there, they quickly fall for one another and enjoy a near-perfect day, until they are separated by the brief mechanical failure of a ride and a storm. Each knows only the other’s first names, and they finally give up searching and go home defeated. But coincidence intervenes: when Jim plays a record of a song they heard at Coney Island, Mary hears it through her apartment wall! The two are reunited.

That’s it. From a plot and character perspective, there is very little to elaborate from there. And thematically, Lonesome doesn’t cover much ground beyond the basic observation that urban isolation exists, but can be overcome. One need look no further than King Vidor’s The Crowd, another story of the crushing anonymity of city life released a few months before Lonesome, for a much more complex and evocative take on the subject.

But Lonesome is a dreamer, and sets itself apart in history with its balls-to-the-wall technical feats and energetic images. Trick shots, elaborate camera movements, and some hand-coloured sequences abound. They take what could've been a faceless bore, and turn it into dazzling, experiential cinema with the barest of plots keeping its heart in a sweet and simple place. When describing Lonesome, one will speak mostly little details and moments, like a shot where Barbara Kent’s hat brim glows impossibly bright like a halo, or the shifting tints that give way to colourized projections in the dance scene.

Speaking of which, the sound design in Lonesome is fantastic, some of the best sound-on-film for a "silent" film that I know of. Not only does the score smartly mix with ambient crowd noises (a technique probably inspired by the marvelous soundtrack of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), but there are moments of bravura sound storytelling. The aforementioned ending scene of a record heard through the wall is impressive, but an early sequence is even better: while sitting in his apartment, Jim hears a band, and looking out his window sees them playing on a truck, advertising Coney Island and excitedly resolves to go. Moments later, Mary hears the same sound in her apartment, and resolves similarly. It’s a wonderful way to both physically separate the characters (who still have not met at this point), and to hint that they are about to meet each other, even if in light of them living in adjacent apartments, it makes no sense for them to hear the same band passing by moments apart.

But after all, few will mistake Lonesome for is a perfect film. Least of all, I suspect, would its director, who seems to have been hell-bent on pushing his kaleidoscope style as far as possible, regardless of narrative consistency. The fact that he succeeded — even after of three crushingly awkward and out-of-place sound sequences were added to the film without Fejos’s approval — is a good  lesson of professionalism and craftsmanship: Fejos’s name is known today because he used a large budget and absolute dedication to cinema’s formal possibilities to turn a ratty love story into a sweet little whirlwind of city life.


Post a Comment