#531 The Docks of New York
1928 // USA // Josef von Sternberg
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Despite Josef von Sternberg’s last silent entry The Case of Lena Smith was unfortunately lost, we could still observe a great deal of artistry and a summation of his all former silent works in The Docks of New York, his the last surviving silent film. Perhaps it was the most gritty looking and meticulously lighted-and-shot film in Sternberg ‘s oeuvre as well. The setting of New York’s underworld, from the crowded bar to the dark alleys, was as essential as any characters in the film, just like the exotic Morocco in Morocco (1930) and the turbulent train in Shanghai Express (1932) did in giving an unique visual characteristic to the film.
The film, in short, recounted an overnight love story that likely to last only when the sun stayed under the horizon. The macho, raucous looking ship stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) planned to spend the overnight-leave on shore surrounded by the routine substances, alcohols and women. But as fate interfered, he rescued a drowning prostitute Mae (Betty Compson) from suicide. A man that had nothing to loose and a woman that had lost everything attracted to each other. This budding love was juxtaposed with a failed marriage between Mae’s friend Lou (Olga Baclanova) and her long absent husband Andy (Mitchell Lewis) who happened to be the Third Engineer and the superior of Bill.
The instant passion was followed by an impulsive marriage, held by the solemn priest Hymn-book Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz), even though the groom knew he would be far away at sea the next day and the bride understood she couldn’t wait for the man forever with merely a vow. Things got more complicated when Andy desired Mae over his own wife, and led to a off-screen gun shooting. Sternberg intentionally left out the brutal scene but utilized the reactions of pigeons, surrounding crowds and finally the police to depict the consequence. The enclosed room of Mae was frequently shown and lighted in high contrast, tightly shot by Harold Rosson as entrapping the characters inside like a place with no exit.
Andy’s final outcome ironically helped Bill realized his love towards Mae was genuine and worthy of risks, still it lacked major repercussion, except an abrupt arrest and trial which was unrelated to the shootout. The film was closed with a relatively “happy” ending between Bill and Mae, but their future was still uncertain, perhaps grimmer than before. Sternberg’s style elevated a redemption story into a visually stunning work, adding layer of struggle in human’s suffering. After that, sound was added in filmmaking, Marlene Dietrich was discovered by Sternberg in Germany, and the rest would be history.