Anyone infatuated with silent film, like me, is always on the lookout for that one pre-talkie film that will win over the unconverted, and I think I’ve found a mighty fine contender in Joe May’s 1929 film, Asphalt, recently released as a region 1 disc by Kino.
Asphalt was shot right on the cusp of the sound film’s emergence in Germany; 1930 would see the release of von Sternberg’s first sound film, The Blue Angel, photographed by Asphalt’s lensman, Gunther Rittau. Watching May’s film, it’s easy to imagine it with its characters talking, but, with Rittau’s fluid camerawork and the astonishing naturalism of the acting, one can only imagine it being made maybe ten to fifteen years later as a very tightly conceived Hollywood noir. It would take the American film industry that long to recover, in the face of the technical strictures of sound, the visual and dramatic sophistication on display in Asphalt (with exception being made for the best of von Sternberg’s Hollywood films).
Noir elements are certainly there in Asphalt‘s sleekly designed storyline, in which five characters get caught in a mesh of crime and sex. Gustav Froelich (of Metropolis) is Holk, an upright young traffic cop whose safe, well-defined life becomes upended by a sexual clash of wills with an uncommonly beautiful member of the demimonde played by Betty Amann. Her Else is a dedicated thief not above using her body to get herself out of a jam, and when Else pushes said body up against Holk, a repressed good boy still living with his parents, Holk comes across like an updated Don José. Attempting to haul Else to the station after stumbling upon her foiled jewel hoist, he only manages to get himself hauled into the sack by Else, who makes him forget all about proper booking procedure. As the totally undone Holk returns home to fret about dereliction of duty, a post coital Else languorously lights a cigarette and realizes that the cop was kind of hot.What the hell, she thinks the next day, and sends him a box of cigars. Reconnoitering midst angry denials from Holk, they fall into a clutch once again. This time it’s love. Disaster then comes knocking in the form Elke’s politico boyfriend, who is built like a Kelvinator. A bloody, knockdown fight ensues, one of the roosters gets bonked, and somebody’s going to take the fall.
Aside from May’s prodigious filmmaking technique, the big discovery here is Betty Amann, whose Else must be one of the most sexually aggressive females in cinema history. Her seduction of Holk is less seduction than physical assault, she literally jumps his bones, locking her legs around the middle of him in a scissors’ hold, which then segues into a full body grind. No wonder that Asphalt was censored. Accessorized with large powerful eyeballs and a long lithe body, Amann’s sexuality in Asphalt has little in common with the chilled porcelain passivity of stars like Dietrich and Garbo. Even Louise Brooks didn’t get down to business with Amann’s alacrity.
But Amann never became a star. Maybe the studios worried about their sets spontaneously combusting or visible hard-ons straining at a costar’s gabardine. Betty’s career arc resembled Louise Brooks’ in one respect: just like Brooksie, who exited in a Republic western starring John Wayne, Amann appeared in a B-western near the end, In Old Mexico (1938), which featured Hopalong Cassidy and Gabby Hays. Two more films in 1939 and 1943 and she was gone. She died in Westport, Connecticut, in 1990, at the age of 84.