In the waning days of the American silent film, the artform was at the arguable peak of its sophistication as a visual storytelling medium. And there are four films in particular that I would suggest are the very best of the best, among the most sublime examples of what American filmmaking could achieve in the hands of its best practitioners. The greatest of these is F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, from 1927; then there is Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven, also from 1927, and Victor Sjöström's The Wind from 1928. And then there is a film that comes almost up to the level of Sunrise itself, King Vidor's The Crowd, from 1928. Incidentally, The Crowd was nominated for the same award Sunrise won in the first year of the Oscars, the one-off Most Unique and Artistic Production. The romantic in me likes to think that the award had to be retired after honoring two of the most perfect movies that had been or would ever be made in America; the cynic supposes that the Academy took only that long to decide that honoring truly great and important works of cinematic art was the kind of pretentious business that had best be stopped right now, in order to better focus on handing out trophies to middlebrow crap.

For by all means, The Crowd is a truly great work of art: a one-of-a-kind blend of domestic drama and a depiction of urban geometry that most resembles the "city symphony" films of the '20s. Compared to the three other films I have entirely arbitrarily lumped it with, it stands out as the one quintessentially American film in its technique, borrowing some touches that had been pioneered in Europe but bending them into a broadly naturalistic shape that has more in common with the storytelling clarity and character-driven focus of Hollywood films. It was, by the standards of 1928, considered an "experimental film", and one that MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer felt was a poor use of his studio's resources. In all honesty, it does feel like quite an aberration, by MGM standards: that studio, above all studios, favored heaving melodramas played out on gorgeously lush sets with fantastically beautiful movie stars waring rich clothes as they made love to the camera and each other. The Crowd is a grim pre-Depression story of the isolating effects of urban poverty, starring nobodies at their dowdiest, living through a miserably ordinary story of everyday suffering.

Such a thing was not at all the sort of movie that audiences gobbled up in the '20s, any more than now, but producer Irving Thalberg was a believer in both the quality of art that maybe wasn't supposed to be so commercial, and in keeping directors who had made lots of money for him happy by letting them pursue their pet projects on the cheap - and Vidor, who had directed The Big Parade into one of the biggest smash hits of the silent era, certainly had earned such a privilege. The Crowd was not, accordingly, a high-profile project (though it did scrape up a meager profit), but you can tell in just about every camera set-up that it was a passion project made by people as anxious as they could be to make something truly beautiful and extraordinary. It's not claiming more than the film can bear that it's one of the most ambitious movies ever made in the United States, pushing the medium to its absolute limits in certain key moments, while telling a story about a largely unexplored sort of life with such power and precision that more than three decades later, as prominent a figure as Jean-Luc Godard could be heard to opine that it made any further stories set in the same environment redundant and unnecessary.

The Crowd is about normal people living in New York: John (James Murray) and Mary (Eleanor Boardman), who meet and fall in love and marry and have children and squabble and suffer, all in the most unspectacular way you could ever imagine it happening. Other than a slight escalation in drama near the end, killing off a character for reasons that have more to do with miserabilism than naturalism, there are no "writerly" moments in the film: it lacks meet-cutes or ginned-up conflict, relying instead on a scenario that was about to go from common to horribly normal as the economy readied itself to plunge off a cliff in 1929, that of the underemployed husband with too much pride to deal with a shitty job and the wife who has to make decisions about how long she'll put up with him. In the words of one of Joseph Farnham's title cards, John was "one of the seven million that believes New York depends on him", and this willingness to reduce its protagonists to absolutely nobody special is the cornerstone of the film, burned into its very title. For if it wasn't obvious to begin with, the crowd depicted in The Crowd quickly establishes itself as the undifferentiated mass of humanity to which we all belong and in which we either find our place and our somewhat happy as such things go, or do not find our place and feel perpetually "wrong" about life.

To emphasise the plainness of John and Mary, Vidor made a point of casting unfamiliar actors and refusing to glamorise them: Murray was an extra plucked up because of his easygoing way with the camera (his story is an immensely sad one: unable to deal with the rocket-like pace of his career, he quickly descended into alcoholism, ended up on the streets, and died a suicide in 1936, at age 35), while Boardman was Vidor's none-too-prominent wife, deliberately made to look drab and everyday, though never unattractive. The lack of movie star affectation is astonishingly effective: there might not be anywhere else in late American silent cinema where the actors feel like they're acting so little, instead just goofing around, comfortable and unforced, like people who are thoroughly comfortable in each other's company and not inclined to play act for one another.

In contrast to the extraordinarily spare, simple characterisations and acting, the way that The Crowd was shot is unfathomably fussy and viscerally cinematic. The film is, above all else, invested in defining New York - and by extension all cities, and all places where people interact with other people - in terms of its geometry and architecture, a place where people are pressed into anonymity by rigid lines of buildings, rooms, streets. Everything from office suites to maternity wards are presented as geometrical patterns dominated by smoothly intersecting straight lines; the film's most famous shot is an apparent tracking shot up the face of a skyscraper which loses definition as anything but a series of rectangles and lines, with every rectangle leading into a room that could tell stories just as rich with humanity as the one we finally land in - and the combination of that tracking shot (done sideways, with a model) and the cut to the diamond-shaped grid of desks where John is merely one of many workers, is one of the most sublime moments in silent film.

The Crowd is a film that manages to have it both ways, thrillingly: depicting the city as a trap of anonymity and conformity that anybody would want to escape in its visuals and editing, while exploring in its narrative the idea that happiness and contentment are, after a fashion, the result of not trying to feebly fight for individuality as it becomes clear that it can only hurt you and those who love you to refuse to be part of the greater flow of society. In the final shots, our heroes literally recede into a teeming mass of humanity, finding private happiness within the greater crowd (a modestly happy ending that was a compromise between Vidor's vision and the studio's desire for an outright tacky affirmation of traditional morals). The film's message is pragmatic and nuanced: it is right and good that we strive to carve out our own selves, but we are also social creatures that need to exist alongside all the other social creatures; finding the balance between those two points, in the film's view, is the most important thing, and also one of the hardest. In a medium that tends to favor stories about individualists doing their own thing and being lionised for not giving a fuck, that might be as mature a lesson in applied sociology as any film has ever expressed.

For its artistic successes, The Crowd was one of the first generation of inductees into the National Film Registry, alongside three other silents - including, perhaps inevitably, Sunrise. A wholly worthy fate for one of the most essential and important movies ever made.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1928
-Struggling animation producer Walt Disney introduces Mickey Mouse in the sound cartoon Steamboat Willie, becoming an entertainment titan overnight
-The seminal "flappers lead immoral lives" melodrama Our Dancing Daughters makes a star out of Joan Crawford
-MGM releases the first full-length Technicolor film, The Viking

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1928
-Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, working in France, makes The Passion of Joan of Arc
-Zhang Shichuan's serial The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple begins in China; completed in 1931, it is the longest work of narrative cinema ever made
-Fritz Lang releases the espionage epic Spione in Germany