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Sunrise is considered the last of the great silent films as well as the epitome of lyrical form in the silent era. Written by Carl Mayer and directed by FW Murnau in 1927 the story is not too remarkable. In fact, by today's standards it seems pretty simple and melodramatic but from a purely aesthetic level it is as beautiful a film to behold as any in the history of cinema.
A man (George O'Brien) has affair with a vampish city woman (Margaret Livingston) who convinces him to murder his sweet wife (Janet Gaynor). He struggles with the idea but then decides to carry it through so he takes her out on the lake with a canoe where he plans to drown her. But his wife is so charming and innocent that the man feels remorse for even attempting such a horrible thing.
After this incident the rest of the movie involves the man chasing his wife into the city where he attempts to woo her back. She's reluctant but eventually relents and in turn they fall in love all over again. The film could be viewed as a cynical message about an eccentric therapy for an unhappy marriage but really it's a straightforward love story about people who find a way to rekindle their love for each other.
One of the reasons that the film is considered the definitive silent film is because it used all of the, then, current cinematic conventions. Particularly smooth tracking camera movements, which were put on hold for a couple years when talking pictures came around. But it is also a magical film with a very real heart beating at its center.
The DVD – is presented in an aspect ratio 1.20:1 (a couple e-mails corrected my original observation that it was 1.33:1) and has many scratches. It definitely shows its age but without a complete computerized makeover there is no way to get the film looking 'new' again. Still Fox has done as good a restoration job with what they have. The images have a faint shimmering quality to them and the contrast are good.
There are two audio soundtracks on the DVD. The first is the original Movietone track, which was written by Hugo Riesenfeld specific to the images on the screen. It is presented in Dolby Digital monaural. Personally, I've never been a big fan of the soundtrack since it sounds so dated unlike the film, which seems timeless - but there is no doubt it is a classic of its time. The second track is new orchestral score by Tomothy Brock (Thanks to Hunter Hale who corrected me that although John Bailey mentions that the score is done by David Newman and another web site mentions that it is Carl Davis it is indeed Tomothy Brock) The score is still in the vein of silent film scores and sounds a bit better since it is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0.
There are many fine extras on this film starting with a knowledgeable audio commentary track by Cinematographer John Bailey (who shot The Big Chill and Groundhog Day among others). There is also a ten minute section of outtakes from the film. You can watch them alone or with an audio track by Bailey. For enthusiasts of the film this is a definite treat. Also available are the film's screenplay and annotated notes of the original scenario by Mayer and Murnau both of which you can click through at your leisure. The film also includes a section that attempts to reconstruct one of Murnau's lost films; Four Devils. Last there is an original trailer, stills gallery and some restoration notes.
If you have any interest in silent film Sunrise is an essential viewing experience. Beautiful to behold and exceptionally well crafted the film still has the power to movei audiences. Fox Studio Classics has done a great job with the DVD and have added plenty of extras for all to enjoy.
Fox Studio Classics is not releasing Sunrise for regular purchase (at least not yet). Instead you can get the Sunrise DVD free of charge if you buy three of the fourteen Fox Classics discs that are scheduled for release in 2003 and send in the proof of purchases with receipts. So far they have released All About Eve, How Green Was My Valley, An Affair to Remember, Gentleman's Agreement and The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's a rather restrictive way to get people to appreciate older films but maybe it will work. The offer expires in January 2004.