Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Still packs a wallop! The Docks of New York (1928)

If they still made silent films today*… this is pretty much how they’d look: perfectly controlled lighting, smooth almost relaxed camera movements, intense, naturalistic performances with the odd nod and wink. A story about everyday extra-marital strife and hope in the form of a promise… Real people living easily-compromised lives on the brink but enjoying the moment or failing, falling away down into darkness…

Such was Josef von Sternberg’s singular vision from The Salvation Hunters onwards: a vision he was able to present with an almost unrivalled totality in The Docks of New York.

The camera floats into a dockside bar (The Sandbar) and moves into the heart of the action past rowdy customers and the flailing arms of lady entertainers… everything is happening at once with almost every actor in constant motion and yet our eyes are drawn to the arrival of a man in a leather cap. He spots a likely lass and goes over to join her for the evening yet, as he sits down he spots a couple amongst the dancing throng. She is peroxide blonde in her late thirties and making passionate advances to her younger partner. They kiss and she smiles in sexual triumph but the thoughts die the moment she spots the man: her husband…

Mr and Mrs Andy...
Such are the casual cruelties of this twilight world, more nakedly honest in its dark corners than any sunlit suburban sterility. The woman Lou (Olga Baclanova) and the man, Andy (Mitchell Lewis) are repenting at their leisure the mistakes of their hasty youth: it’s killing them both.

Winding back, the film begins in the stoking house of a large cargo ship back in the coal-fired days before oil-power made the job “fit for girls”… Nothing very feminine about Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) a mighty man who is confident in his own power: taking bold steps always under his own steam and whichever direction he wants to go.

The rescue...
Bill and his scrawny mate, "Sugar" Steve (Clyde Cook), have the night off before their ship sails and intend to make full use of it as they head for one of the shore-side dives.  A figure approaches the edge of the water and we see its reflection hesitate and then jump into the murky depths of the dock. Hearing the splash, Bill takes a measured leap and fishes out the would-be suicide: a young woman.

As his colleagues attempt to tend to her, Bill eyes up his catch and decides that it’s finder’s keepers. He carries her off to the bar where he gets Lou to help dry her off whilst he goes off and steals some dry clothes for her. Gradually we learn that the woman is called Mae (a luminous Betty Compson: well-worth saving) who has reached the end of her tether, much to Bill’s bemusement.

George Bancroft
Bill hits the bar and alpha males his way through the throng to the start of a very good time. Bancroft is superb as the stoker with an unyielding belief in his own animal strength – none of the doubts of the “weak” characters in The Salvation Hunters: he has maybe too much self-confidence: no plan just reacting to the instant.

Mae makes an entrance
Mae is well enough to join him in the bar and the two begin to recognise themselves in each other. The parallels with the older couple are clear and intentional and Andy, former cock of the walk, tries to exert his fading authority by luring Mae away. Bill sends him packing with a brief flash of aggression. An enemy is made and the grudge will be held.

Lou takes charge...just about
But the evening goes well and Bill decides that he likes Mae well enough to marry her: right there and then! They enlist of the aid of "Hymn Book" Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz with another excellent turn as the possibly de-frocked priest still hanging onto his faith) to perform a ceremony of dubious legitimacy.
The wedding party...
The following morning it quickly emerges that Mae had wanted rather more out of things than her “husband” who is keen to resume his seafaring ways… but there’s a touching moment when she sews his pocket and you wonder if maybe there’s more here for Bill than he thinks.

It takes a major incident – which I won’t divulge – to force the issue as the forces of love-hate that have been amassing come to the fore…

I really enjoyed this film, perhaps even more so than other von Sternberg offerings. It’s a simpler story than either The Last Command or Underworld and is more purely romantic. The director is perhaps more fully in control of what we see than in either and the composition and camerawork is sumptuous.

He makes most of Bancroft’s natural assets whilst both female leads emerge as dry runs for Dietrich… obsessively lit and wearing their hearts of gold visibly on their sleeves. Olga Baclanova is superbly world-weary, recognising that history could be about to repeat itself is she really trying to save Andy for herself of save Mae from Andy?

Betty Compson
But Betty Compson is the special von Sternberg effect: her face haloed in soft white light - a mask barely concealing the last vestiges of her girlhood.

You really have to see The Docks of New York to fully appreciate its monochromatic magic: to see believable, emotional drama emerging clear from out of the shadows and fog. It is available as part of Criterion’s superb von Sternberg box set. It’s still available although often at inflated prices, so shop around: it’s worth it. Adapted from John Monk Saunders story The Dock Walloper, Docks still packs that punch.

*Yes, I know they do. The Artist sits proudly on my silent shelves and Blancanieves has just joined it: and how do they look?

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