i just started digging into the new 3 silent classics by josef von sternberg box from the criterion collection this week. the set contains underworld (1927), the genesis of the gangster film genre, the last command (1928), one of emil jannings' greatest performances, and the film i wanted to talk about today, the docks of new york (1928).
the plot is simple, pure melodrama. bill roberts, a stoker on overnight leave from his ship, has it in mind to prowl the docks of new york for an evening's revelry. almost as soon as he sets foot on land, though, a wrench is thrown into the works. mae, a denizen of the docks with a less than savory reputation, throws herself into the drink in an attempt to end it all. bill rescues her, finds her shelter and they begin a whirlwind courtship that ends with them getting married in the sandbar, a dive if ever there was one. jealousy enters the picture in the form of andy, third engineer on bill's ship and bill's superior. andy is enamored of mae, even though he is married, and, in the final act, makes unwanted advances on her. lou, andy's long-suffering wife, follows him to mae's room and puts a couple of slugs in him. bill, his leave at its end, goes back to his ship but can't get mae out of his head. he jumps overboard and swims back to shore just in time to find mae in the dock (get it?), up on charges for stealing the clothes she is wearing. it turns out, bill actually swiped them for her so she could have something dry to put on after he pulled her out of the harbor. he confesses and gets tossed in the clink for six months but not before mae says she'll wait for him.
pretty standard stuff in 1928. pretty standard stuff now, for that matter. melodrama doesn't tend to change an awful lot. we're not here for the story, though. we are here for how it's told. there is an intersection of talent here that resulted in what is possibly the last great film of silent cinema. just a year prior, the jazz singer (1927), ushered in the era of the talking picture. al jolson's voice sounded as the death knell for the silent form. unfortunate, in a way, because if you look at the list of silents produced in 1928 it is painfully evident that these filmmakers were just beginning to hit their stride. in a number of ways, craftsmanship went out the window for a while with the introduction of sound and people seemed to be settling for the novelty of it without caring about much else. the docks of new york certainly provides a stunning document of what was sacrificed.
practically every frame is masterfully composed. cinematographer harold rosson and set designer hans dreier complemented von sternberg's vision of the docks by shrouding it in a nearly impenetrable fog and providing expressionistic backdrops that combine to make it almost otherworldly.
that's no mean feat, to pull off this level of artistry and still maintain the reputation for realism in social drama that von sternberg had. i don't think i can overemphasize just how much there is to look at in almost every shot. it's all done with great economy and style. what would be overly busy in less talented hands is rich with necessary detail here. even the scenes in the sandbar, riotous and calamitous as they are, take advantage of the little details.
in this pivotal scene, which revolves exclusively around the two principles, you can observe what is happening in the room via the mirror. it's action that would have been easy to imply with sound, but vital to portray in silent cinema. nothing that will allow you to immerse yourself in the experience is left out or half-done. there is a staggering amount of technique on display but it never feels like an exercise.
all of that said, though, you can't sell melodrama without a fair dose of humanity and the cast also transcends the material as written. george bancroft is fine as bill. you never have any doubt that he is, as he puts it, "just a dirty stoker". barrel-chested, not exactly refined, he enjoys nothing more than squeezing all the life out of an overnight leave. olga baclanova inhabits lou's skin about as well as a woman could. she can booze and brawl with the best of this lot and she's had just about enough of you, buddy. and then there's betty compson. every glance is shot through with resignation. every breath is a capitulation. she is carrying the weight, to be sure.
but it's not just her. it's everyone. every single character that lives, drinks, fights and loves on the docks carries that weight. they don't want pity for it. it's their lot. maybe, for mae, bill is her brass ring. the kid's got to take her shot, right? so they get married, why not? like light on water, throughout this seventy-five minutes, you see these glimmers of hope, even though everyone down here knows better. you see it when the pastor performs the ceremony in spite of himself because he sees how much it means to mae. even though every movement is rough and brusque, there is tenderness in the way they talk to each other forged out of a shared desperation. the characters lack the sophistication to even express it but somehow they manage. the fact that we all know it's going to come to nothing, most especially mae, only makes it that much more poignant.
it's a shame it all had to end.