15 August 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Was the German version better? It could hardly be worse!
'Der Greifer' - literally 'The Snatcher' - was shot concurrently in German- and English-language versions; this was a fairly common practice in the early days of talking pictures, when it was not yet practical to overdub dialogue soundtracks. Inevitably there are other differences between the different versions: in this case, the heroine Dolly Mooreland was played by Charlotte Susa in the German version and by Muriel Angelus in the English version. This posting is a review of 'Night Birds', the English version. As I've not seen the German version, I can't offer a precise comparison between them. I've seen a script for the German version, in which some of the characters' names differ from the English version, but I haven't read it deeply enough to attempt a comparison.
Right. There are these three gangsters. One of them is named Scotty, and so far the film is plausible. From this point onwards, it isn't. The other two gangsters are named Dancer Johnny and Toothpick Jeff. In English, these nicknames are more than slightly incredible. It's possible that these are translations of German nicknames which (for all I know) may indeed be quite plausible. These three crooks take their marching orders from a mysterious gang leader who likes to keep his identity a secret. (And I don't blame him.) We get the impression early on that one of the other people in this movie - someone seemingly honest - is the gang leader, and there's going to be some sort of unmasking at the climax of the film.
The crooks are planning a jewel robbery. Two cops are trying to catch the crooks. But instead of working together, the cops are rivals working at cross purposes. In a variation of the good cop-bad cop scenario, one cop is determined to follow the rules and nab the crooks in a high-minded manner. The other cop is utterly ruthless, determined to nick them by any means fair or foul. We're meant to recognise that this cop is worse than the gangsters. Could have fooled me.
There are two different photographers credited: apparently Bruno Mondi shot the German version whilst Heinrich Gärtner filmed the English version. As the two versions must have been made concurrently rather than simultaneously, I can't possibly see why two different cameramen were needed unless they were working in rotating shifts on a tight schedule. (This was sometimes the case in Hollywood during the early talkies period.) Gärtner did a lousy job, because the photography in the English version is too dark and out of focus. The direction is bad too, with terrible pacing and with almost every shot poorly framed. This film seems to have been made without a viewfinder. The sound recording is wretched, although that was a common problem in 1930. The editing and shot matching are quite bad. All the actors give bad performances; Jameson Thomas as a villain is especially embarrassing. Most annoying of all, the plot is filled with howlingly implausible situations. The director appears to be attempting some damage control: this movie is primarily a caper story in the Edgar Wallace mould, but all through the film are half-hearted efforts at comedy relief, as if the director is trying to convince us that none of this is meant seriously.
The principal author of this mess is Max Ehrlich, who later wrote the incredibly bad novel 'The Reincarnation of Peter Proud'. (The name Peter Proud all by itself is bad enough to ruin any plotline.) Ehrlich also wrote one of the worst episodes of the original 'Star Trek' series. I'm usually sympathetic to part-talkies and early talkies, as they had to overcome so many tech problems ... but 'Night Birds' is far worse than it needs to be.
The German-language versions of 'The Blue Angel' and Garbo's 'Anna Christie' are vastly superior to the English-langage versions. As most of the people involved in making 'Night Birds' were German, it's quite possible that the German-language version of 'Der Greifer' is superior to this English-language version. Based solely on a viewing of the English version and a glance at the German screenplay, I'll rate this mess 2 points out of 10.