johnlink ranks DESERT NIGHTS (1929)

Most of my silent film watching is motivated by a star (Chaplin, Keaton) or a famous title (METROPOLIS, CALIGARI). Sometimes, like the Babe Ruth movie which popped up awhile back or the car racing movie SPEEDWAY, the viewing is born from a curiosity about the contemporaneous look or portrayal of something specific. Rarely do I see a description of a silent movie and think “Hey, that sounds cool” and just watch it. But that is what happened with DESERT NIGHTS.


I watched DESERT NIGHTS (1929) on 7.16.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

This film is about a couple of thieves who rob a diamond mine, kidnap the man in charge, and take off across the desert. When things go wrong in the dessert, the survivors (thieves and kidnapped alike) must work together to survive.

Hugh (John Gilbert) is a modern leading man, despite this being 1929. He’s sarcastic, he is forward about his attraction for Diana (Mary Nolan), and he is aggressive. When he is kidnapped by the thieves, he goes from being a smart diamond guy to being a smart kidnapping victim. He is observant, resourceful, determined.

Diana is, too, a somewhat modern woman. Sure she lets Hugh tell her that she will be his when he wants her. But, really, she’s just playing the game. She uses her sex to get what she wants. The man she identifies as her father sure acts more like a lover (played well by Ernest Torrence). She bathes in water without a shirt on (which, despite its non-nude banality, is something which would be eliminated from Hollywood soon enough not to reappear for decades). She has a quick wit, and is more level-headed than her ‘father’.

I was constantly surprised how good this looked for 1929. Nothing felt like a studio set. The houses felt real, not like built facades. The desert scenes, shot in the Mojave, are genuine. We don’t have to suspend disbelief as the going gets rougher, because nothing is painted on. It is all there for us to see.

This quickly became one of my favorite silent films. Wonderfully shot, this movie uses some shadow work  which predates film noir (and so is less sophisticated) but which still works to great effect. This is also powerfully acted and surprisingly current. I’ve always felt like silent movies do comedy better than drama because of their presentational nature. However, this suspense film works amazingly well (though it does have plenty of comedy as well).

This is ultimately a story about power. The person with the power switches between the three main characters constantly. Sometimes only the audience knows it has changed, sometimes they all know. At just over an hour, this is a surprisingly entertaining and surprisingly effective little thriller. I’d watch this again over plenty of modern fare in the genre. And unlike many of the genre, I was absolutely caught off guard when the first act twist happened. I actually had been sucked in to thinking this was going to be a sort of conventional romance when the entire mood of the story changes. I really just dug this little movie!





~ by johnlink00 on July 16, 2013.

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