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The film's reputation faded over the years, however. By the time Dave Kehr wrote about Variety for the Reader in the 70s or early 80s, he dismissed it as "the textbook example of German expressionism . . . the blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art." I sympathize with Kehr's instinct to reject movies considered textbook examples of anything (enshrining a work as an exemplar of form tends to drain it of its vitality), though I don't agree with his assessment of the film as blatant. What most impresses me about Variety is the nuanced work that Dupont elicits from lead actors Lya De Putti, Warwick Ward, and Emil Jannings. Beneath the film's melodramatic plot about romantic jealousy and betrayal is a sophisticated study of erotic desire; some of Dupont's close-ups of faces overwhelmed by fascination can still inspire shocks of recognition.
Dupont's forthrightness about sexual attraction has aged much better than his expressionist stylization, although that can be enjoyable too. Working with cinematographer Karl Freund, who'd shot Jannings in F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Tartuffe, Dupont realizes the hero's emotional instability through some arrestingly flashy moments. When Jannings's character first realizes he's been made a cuckold, for instance, Dupont executes a rapid 360-degree pan around the barroom where he learns the news. And the climactic trapeze performance, during which Jannings thinks about killing his rival in front of the crowd but then relents, is rich in hyperbolic imagery, such as a creepy, Murnau-worthy frame filled with nothing but applauding hands.
It's easy to see why Variety so inspired Whale: the film's mix of psychological realism and baroque visuals anticipates Whale's own Kiss Before the Mirror (which, not coincidentally, was also shot by Freund), and the grown-up considerations of lust anticipate his Waterloo Bridge. In hindsight, Dupont seems less like an expressionist than a realist who emphasized his observations with expressionist tactics. It would be great if more of his silent work came out of the shadows.