I’ve seen director F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) but not this much-admired Oscar-winning classic, so I made it another movie on my 10 Classics to watch in 2015/Blind Spot list.
Sunrise tells the story of a farmer, The Man (George O’Brien), who is having an affair with The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). She convinces him to kill The Wife (Janet Gaynor), sell his farm and run away with her, and though he’s initially horrified, he’s driven by lust and obsession to agree to do the murder the next morning. He takes the wife on a day trip and when the moment comes he can’t kill her, but in revealing his intention he terrifies his wife and sends her fleeing into the city. He catches up, attempts to regain her trust and make up for his moment of madness, and through the day they fall in love again.
It’s a simple plot full of beautiful visuals, sensitive moments and fine acting, especially by O’Brien. The situation in which the murder almost happens reverses at the end to bookend the couple’s emotional arc and demonstrate the husband’s renewed commitment to love and protect. The City Woman’s idea is that he “accidentally” drown his wife and save himself with a bundle of bulrushes. It’s well thought out and so coldly delivered that you suspect she’s suggested or even done it before, and on the title card her words are spelled out with melting text. When the reconciled couple is boating back home they’re caught in a sudden storm and now, in identical circumstances, the husband hopes the bulrushes will save his wife, and he fights to prevent the tragedy he would have caused and welcomed that morning.
The women are opposites: dark versus light in looks, personality and the future they offer. The temptress is single-minded, scheming, controlling, eager to exploit problems, destroy an idyllic life, and appearing as a vision in the night, like a devil on his shoulder. By contrast, the wife is smiling, sweet, tender and patient, a caring mother ready with an inviting table and a nice dinner, all the shorthand and symbols of a home and marriage any husband should treasure like this husband once did. The city the siren offers him is frenetic, dizzying, loud, and exhausting, not like the city where the couple ends up restoring their marriage. Their day is an increasingly delightful series of vignettes adding up to a second honeymoon: the wedding where they sneak in to watch and take the vows as reminders, the beauty parlour where he gets a shave and confronts the creep hitting on his wife, the portrait studio where they break the photographer’s fancy statue and try to escape before he notices they’ve replaced it with a dolly head, and finally the amusement park where there’s a drunken piglet chase and dancing.
Body language tells so much of the story, in the husband’s every slow and halting move toward enacting his terrible decision and his inability to meet his wife’s eyes until he looks at her with murderous hate. After her terror wears off, the wife spends much of the morning slumped over like a broken doll, leaning away from him, numb to his peace offerings until she comforts him when he breaks down later in the church.
There are many clever and gorgeous shots, effects and camera techniques, like the trolley ride into the city using a front-window POV so that scenery zips by as the couple are frozen in silence trying to comprehend what nearly happened in the rowboat and what’s become of their marriage. Much later they imagine they’re kissing in the country but are snapped out of their reverie to find they’re standing in a busy intersection totally oblivious to the traffic they’re blocking, and there are many such moments of similar impact and innovation. It’s a beautiful film that deserves all the raves and superlatives it gets, and yet another I’m glad I finally watched.