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...|
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.
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.
|Mae makes an entrance|
|Lou takes charge...just about|
|The wedding party...|
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?
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?