This intimate dreamscape, some of Von Sternberg’s most discomfiting work, asking the audience to identify with a fetishistic killer, ends abruptly in the extended courtroom sequence that ends the film, a marathon of stilted exposition... But a film with as complex a production history as this one couldn’t help but being compromised in the end, with so many demands coming from Paramount, the censors, and Dreiser’s lawsuit. It is two-thirds of a great film.
Though Sternberg largely dismissed An American Tragedy as an uninspired assignment, it has memorable elements. Liquid imagery flows through the film, from the elegant titles superimposed on clear water that shatters in ripples; through the breezy, dappled brightness of the riverside where Clyde first woos Roberta; to the quiet, pristine lake where we see her flounder and go under.