The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch / U.S., 1924):

A private joke early on ("Don’t be silly—husbands are blind!") points up the Viennese tradition, after Stroheim comes Lubitsch and no mistake. Two couples or possibly three comprise the carousel construction, the sour and sweet matrimonial extremes that meet in the middle, a most geometric affair. For the upper-crust professor (Adolphe Menjou) and the straying socialite (Marie Prevost), marriage is a hole in a sock and a rumpled tuxedo tossed on the bed; for the middle-class physician (Monte Blue) and his wife (Florence Vidor), it is Grieg on the piano ("Ich Liebe Dich") and the kind of passion that can halt a coffee-stirring hand in the morning. One side pines for divorce while the other wards off flirtations, on spin the misunderstandings, the fellow doctor (Creighton Hale) and a blond party guest (Esther Ralston) quickly join the Kandinsky swirl as free integers. "There is more danger in dancing than in dining..." A conscious abstraction of interplay via an omniscient camera, farce polished like a revolving glass door, the origins of the Lubitsch poker face. A Woman of Paris is a recognized influence, and there’s Menjou delivering another master class in insouciant severity, doing morning exercises (a gag later borrowed by Ozu) and then contemplating Prevost with a smile that vanishes into a frigid glare. (Her explanation: "I need love.") The place card on the table and the slow dissolve on a closed door, the ring thrown in the garden and the scarf blown away by the wind, a surprise kiss that cuts to an exchange of keys: A multiplicity of suggestive objects and shifts, each clicking into place. (Such is the density that, when a detective’s scribbled list briefly fills the screen, it plays less like an intertitle and more like a glance at the conductor’s notes.) A central work, revisited in One Hour with You and closely studied by Sturges and Bergman and Mazursky, among others. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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