The New Yorker Critic’s Notebook – January 9, 2012 Issue
Black & White & Red
By David Denby – January 2, 2012
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, the adulterous heroine of “The Scarlet Letter,” was a grand, serious, and reserved young woman, but, in the great 1926 silent movie based on the novel (screening Jan. 9 at Film Forum), directed by Victor Sjöström (or Seastrom, as he was known in Hollywood), Lillian Gish takes the role in surprising directions: she allows Hester some touches of conventional vanity; she’s even coquettish at times. Meeting her lover, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), in the woods, she rips off the scarlet “A,” removes her cap, shakes loose a magnificent pile of hair, and primps for a second. The most liquid of actresses, Gish goes from stillness to seething moments of anxiety and fear, with a few shafts of pure defiant pleasure thrown in. Sjöström’s production, shot at M-G-M, has a richness of austerity—the black-and-white Puritan-era costumes are almost abstract in their simplicity; the rooms are stern, bare, uncomfortable. But, outside, the woods offer a kind of stippled erotic paradise.
David Denby – January 2, 2012