What’s the greatest lost film?
First you have to make a distinction between films that are lost entirely and films that still available, but incomplete. The two greatest incomplete films would be Greed (1924) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Greed was originally eight hours long, but was edited — against the wishes of its director, Erich von Stroheim — to just over two hours. With The Magnificent Ambersons, Universal Studios lopped off the last half hour of Ambersons and tacked on a happier ending, while the director, Orson Welles, was filming in Brazil. The longer versions of both films no longer exist. Based on the work of both directors, we can only assume these outstanding films would be even better if available in the form the director intended.
The best lost film that no longer exists in any form would probably be F. W. Murnau’s 4 Devils (1928). We can’t know for sure — because it no longer exists. Based on the productions stills, script, critical reaction to film when it was released, and Murnau’s other films in the late twenties, it’s a good bet this might be the most interesting of all the missing films.
Here are some production stills from 4 Devils:
To get a better sense of what we may be missing, check out Murnau’s 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film (2003), which uses production stills and the script to sketch out what 4 Devils might have looked like. The forty-minute documentary is one of the extras on the Sunrise DVD.
Unfortunately, you can’t buy the Sunrise DVD on its own. You have to purchase it in a package of three other films: How Green Was My Valley (1941), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and All About Eve (1950). Sunrise is the bonus film in the package, which makes the 4 Devils documentary a bonus for the bonus.
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