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Minor Murnau, though not entirely negligible
on 4 May 2012
One of the perils of making a masterpiece is that subsequent films that might once have impressed tend to disappoint, and that's certainly the case with F.W. Murnau's City Girl, which had the misfortune to follow Sunrise. Not that Sunrise was well received when it came out or even that City Girl is quite the film that Murnau intended - he disagreed with Fox over making a concurrent and now lost talkie version and the film was finished by other anonymous hands, which might explain the somewhat more conventional editing (Murnau apparently had somewhat more elaborate plans in mind). But even had Murnau finished, this wouldn't be on the same level, though the director does try to let audiences know this is a different kind of film in the opening scenes, where a vampish woman of the city (not the title character) tries to lure Charles Farrell's country boy off the straight and narrow only for him to seemingly not get what she's driving at. Instead he falls for Mary Duncan's lonely waitress dreaming of something better than city life, who in turn notices him when he says grace before eating at the subterranean joint she works in.
Unfortunately their meeting cute and not-quite courtship is rather formulaic Hollywood fare and it's this section that at times feels most like the work of another director: the same could be said of Ernest Palmer's cinematography and Edgar G. Ulmer's design, with some mostly striking work marred by surprisingly flat ones. Despite some nice moments, it tends to drag its heels and doesn't entirely sell the idea that these two are soul mates. Things pick up when they get hitched and head out to the farm, where stern pa David Torrence doesn't approve and the local farmhands (Guinn `Big Boy' Williams and John Ford's regular ugly mug Jack Pennick among them) think she's more their type than Farrell's. But while the filmmaking and lighting improve immeasurably over the sporadically flat city scenes, the plot remains firmly in stage melodrama gear as everyone conspires to tear them apart while Duncan waits forlornly for Farrell to stand up for her and for himself. Worse, despite the promise of events coming to a head just as an oncoming storm makes it critical to gather in the harvest at nightfall, we're not treated to the kind of visually striking man-versus-nature setpiece the film seems to be building up to, with everything neatly resolved rather more economically.
It's not so much that City Girl is a bad film, more that it's a rather conventional one that at times feels like it could have been made by any capable director. It's a film with nice moments, like Duncan returning to her lonely city apartment by the elevated railroad tracks and dreaming of an idealised country life, something Murnau manages to convey without dream sequences but with her face and her environment, and the vivid sequence of them running and playing in the wheat fields when he takes her to the family farm has a real sense of joy and freedom that makes her rejection all the more crushing, but there aren't really enough of them to turn this into something special. It's a minor Murnau, though not an entirely negligible one.
No qualms about Eureka's beautifully crisp and clear BluRay transfer, however: using the same restored print in Fox's Region 1 Murnau/Borzage DVD boxed set, it's quite possibly the finest silent movie transfer you'll ever see on any home video format, letterboxed in its original 1.19:1 ratio and with no distracting blurry Dolby Noise Reduction to contend with. The only extras are an audio commentary by David Kalat and a 28-page booklet.