Bright Lights Film Journal

This is The Town and These Are the People

The Town
(Josef von Sternberg; 1945)

Produced under the imprimatur of the U.S. Office of War Information, The Town was the only film directed in its entirety by Josef von Sternberg between 1941’s The Shanghai Gesture and 1953’s Anatahan, and in every respect it is an expert work of state propaganda. Its purpose was to illustrate no less than the full American ideal of Democracy through images of everyday life in what used to be known as a typical small town in the Midwest. But while it’s one of the very few occasions in the Sound era where Sternberg dealt with a specifically American setting (the others being slightly more baroque works such as An American Tragedy, Blonde Venus and Sergeant Madden), it stands far outside whatever themes might have been established by those films.

Of necessity, it’s an entirely rhetorical work (that was simply the nature of the enterprise), with an eleven minute running time that afforded Sternberg scant opportunity to do anything more than deliver the film’s message with as much artistry as he could bring to it. But the small lumps of sensibility he does deliver on this occasion are sufficient to place this film alongside similarly artful propaganda evocations such as John Ford’s Battle of Midway and William Wyler’s Memphis Belle. From the evidence of his fluid, disciplined camera gliding through public libraries, corner drugstores, schoolrooms and the like, the odd striking composition (not to mention a rather odd montage of closeups featuring prepubescent girls at a public swimming pool . . . Busby Berkeley by way of Roman Polanski, one might suggest if one were of an evil frame of mind), you could not easily or for very long mistake this film for the work of another director.

The paradigmatic American town of Sternberg’s film . . . Madison, Indiana . . . is, we are told, forged out of the lives and experiences of its people; a good many of them immigrants from the Old World. It is they who keep democracy afloat through their labor. It is they who run the shops, sit on juries, participate at all levels in the well-oiled class-less system which is the true focus of the film’s celebratory intent. By way of direct contrast, over a decade later . . . in his melancholic adaptation of James Jones’ godawful 1957 novel Some Came Running . . . Vincente Minnelli would regard the very same locale and see a landscape of frustrated passions and vague ennui, proffering it almost in the same rhetorical fashion as Sternberg’s to be the real fruit of post-war American life. It would have been foolish to expect Sternberg to assume even a tacitly critical stance in a propaganda film paid for by the United States government, but that only makes the question of whether Sternberg really believed the message of this marginally jingoist enterprise, beautifully wrought as it is, all the more perplexing.