As F. W. Murnau’s follow-up to Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans, 4 Devils shares a handful of similarities to its predecessor. The fragility of romance, the despair of love, the almost uncontrollable fatalistic human urges underpin the love triangle that permeates a couple in the circus when a woman in town enters the scene.
Therefore, it’s inevitable that some comparison must occur between 4 Devils and Sunrise, which isn’t particularly fair if only because 4 Devil could be the setup which leads to the state in which the characters find themselves at the beginning of Sunrise. It’s more about a wonderful relationship being threatened instead of renewed.
What makes this all work is the superb cast. Janet Gaynor is fantastic, as always, able to bring both spunk and vulnerability to her character. Mary Duncan (who would star in Murnau’s next feature: City Girl) plays the temptress of sorts, but is able to make the audience empathize with her as a character even while despising her actions. Charles Morton is probably the weakest performer of the main three, but he’s still quite good and it’s a bit disappointing that this was one of the very few films he performed in as he showed promise.
L. Williams O’Connell and Ernest Palmer’s collaboration as co-cinematographers for the film produce some of the finest camerawork seen in a Murnau. They use the camera to liberate the viewer from the confines of the circus ring. Much like the performers themselves, the camera has a grace, balance and deliberation of movement. And the trapeze scene certainly feels like the inspiration for the masterful sequences from Wings of Desire.
In his grand body of work, 4 Devils has gotten lost in the shuffle. It’s understandable, the film is not quite as gripping or as memorable as his other work and it lacks some of the more tantalizing and fantastical imagery of his most popular features. Still, it shows the skill of the cast and director that it’s a powerful and effecting emotional journey and a great companion piece to Sunrise.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing