City Girl (Masters of Cinema) Review

Just over a year ago, Masters of Cinema released F.W. Murnau's final film made in the USA, City Girl only on Blu-ray. This followed a policy change: where the original materials permitted a HD transfer, MoC would release the film only on Blu-ray. If the materials didn't permit it, then the film would come out on DVD only. (Some flagship releases, such as M and Metropolis, would still be issued in both formats.) The reasoning was that MoC's customers were more likely than the general public to have upgraded to Blu-ray, even if a BD-only release would exclude those who hadn't. In the case of City Girl, there wasn't a standalone DVD edition available from elsewhere in the UK or USA: it had previously only formed part of Fox's Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set. Also, by not producing a DVD edition, MoC would free up resources which they could devote to future releases.

However, in February 2011, MoC changed this policy. They issued DVD editions of four films which had up to then been Blu-ray only: Profound Desires of the Gods, The Burmese Harp, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Make Way for Tomorrow. Two months later, City Girl makes that five. This seeming backtrack on MoC's part was to fill a hole in their release schedule and to generate income while they worked on future Blu-rays. While I see the arguments in favour of BD-only editions (though for various reasons I haven't upgraded to Blu-ray myself), at least this does make these titles available to a wider audience. With the two Antonioni films, La signora senza camelie and Le amiche, they have followed the BFI's lead and issued dual-format editions.

My fellow reviewer Clydefro Jones reviewed the Blu-ray of City Girl in February 2010 and I can do little more than refer you to his comments here. Although it has been less celebrated than Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise, it would seem that City Girl has been quietly influential on its own: in its countryside scenes I'm not the first person to be reminded of Terrence Malick and Nestor Almendros's (with help from Haskell Wexler) work on Days of Heaven nearly half a century later. I agree with Clydefro that a couple of false notes mean that City Girl is a step down from Sunrise, but it's still a moving, visually lyrical film that's essential viewing for anyone interested in Murnau in particular or filmmaking at the junction of silents and talkies in general.

The Disc: City Girl is released on a dual-layered DVD in NTSC format, encoded for Region 2 only. This isn't the first disc that Eureka – both in the Masters of Cinema series and outside it – have released in NTSC, but let me commend them for doing this. Much better this than standards-converting to PAL, and I wish other distributors would follow suit.

City Girl was released in US cinemas as a part-talkie with a synchronised Movietone soundtrack. According to David Kalat's commentary, there's no record of this being shown in America any other way. However, there was also a silent version, shown in Europe where cinemas were slower to convert to sound, This was thought lost but was rediscovered in 1970, and is considered to be much closer to Murnau's intentions. Fox – and hence MoC – have released this version on disc, although it's in the early-sound aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Apart from the obvious facts that it's silent and in black and white, it's hard to credit that this film is now over eighty years old. This is one of the best DVD transfers of a film of this vintage I have seen. There's a little flickering and some minor damage, but blacks are solid, whites true and a plethora of shades of grey in between. No doubt the Blu-ray transfer is the winner – and if you are Blu-enabled and interested in this film, you may well have bought it already – but this is more than satisfactory for the DVD-owners out there.

The soundtrack is a music score by Christopher Caliendo. It's presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds just fine, and is well suited to the film.

The only extra on the disc is the David Kalat commentary referred to earlier, and a very entertaining listen it is, covering a lot of ground in just an hour and a half. This goes into some detail about the place City Girl has in Murnau's career – after Sunrise and the now-lost 4 Devils and before his final film Tabu and his untimely death in a car accident – and also questions just how characteristic Murnau's “trademark” dispensing with intertitles is. (Unlike The Last Laugh and Tabu, he doesn't do without them here.)

Masters of Cinema's booklet for City Girl runs to twenty-eight pages, though apart from film and DVD credits and stills it comprises one five-page article, “Reaching Beyond the Frame: Murnau's City Girl” by Adrian Danks, from 2003, reprinted from Senses of Cinema, plus quite a few stills. Danks discusses City Girl as in many ways an inversion of the city/country dialectic in Sunrise, and distinguishes this film's use of montage with the earlier film's use of screen and off-screen space.

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