The Crowd

The Crowd ★★★★★

A movie so elementally modern that it seems to be both a close for the first great era of filmmaking and a blueprint for what was to come. Its influence is like that of Gilgamesh, such an inherent part of what the medium has become as to be a core part of its DNA. The basic read on this is that it transplants expressionism into realism, and that's not altogether wrong, though it gives the impression that Vidor smooths out the stylistic excesses of that movement. Instead, he refines and arguably expands its scope, taking it from the realm of the symbolic and theatrical and into the richer possibilities for subtle expression endemic to cinema.

That early shot of the child John ascending the stairs to news of his father's untimely death, the focal length of the shot stretching the stairwell behind him so that his friends gathered at the bottom look as if they were 50 feet away. The way that the camera floats up looming skyscrapers in an obvious callback to Lang's Metropolis but with present-day buildings instead of futuristic megastructures, achieving the same otherworldly effect but in the small-town boy entering into the developed city. Then the dissolve into said building to an endless grid of desks where the only titles on employees' name plates is their number, turning workers into prisoners (The Apartment wholesale ripped off this shot).

The acting is melodramatic, of course, but tempered by moments of an overwhelmed defeat where the bold expressions of despair and anger fade into a numbed kind of resentment, for work, for the city, for loved ones. It's a startling as any of Vidor's exquisite blocking, a window into just how broken down the characters are by their situation. The conclusion updates Murnau's metafictionally ironic coda for The Last Laugh by finding an optimistic ending that feels utterly hopeless, a brief diversion of entertainment in a permanently shellshocked but codependent family that casually equates film to the frivolous carnival act that brings momentary joy to its characters.