The Docks of New York is one of those orphaned silents, released in 1928, the very end of the era. Apparently, it was previewed the same week as Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, his first “all-talking” picture, the follow-up to The Jazz Singer and the highest-grossing film of the year. While The Singing Fool enjoyed an exclusive New York premiere, with eleven-dollar orchestra seats and special souvenir tickets, The Docks of New York wasn’t so much as mentioned by the New York Times until two years later, and then by the paper’s Paris correspondent, when it and von Sternberg’s Underworld were all the rage over there. It never became the rage over here.
But if 1928 was the end of the silent era, it was also its apex. It was the year of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman and Steamboat Bill, Jr., Chaplin’s The Circus, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Fritz Lang’s Spies, Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, Eisenstein’s October, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’argent, Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar, Frank Borzage’s Street Angel, von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and The Wedding March, King Vidor’s The Crowd and Show People, and Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher, among others. Some of these films managed to be hits in the face of the tide of technological change, while others took decades to be recognized as classics, but all of them are distinguished by a common mastery of form, a confidence and sophistication about the medium, a plateau of achievement from which there was seemingly nowhere to go but sideways.
The Docks of New York is one of those that became famous by accumulated rumor over the years—famous being a relative term, since it came to be considered von Sternberg’s best film in some quarters, while most people still had no idea he had made any pictures before The Blue Angel (1930). In fact, he had made nine movies by then, eight silents and one sound picture, although four of the silents are now lost, including the one that immediately preceded The Docks of New York, a gangster picture called The Drag Net (1928), and the one that immediately followed it, his last silent, The Case of Lena Smith (1929), of which all we have are a brief fragment, a few tantalizing stills, and the suggestion that it in some way derived from the director’s memories of his early childhood in Vienna. Another lost film is The Sea Gull (1926), also known as A Woman of the Sea, which is lost, it is rumored, because Chaplin, who commissioned it for his former paramour Edna Purviance, disliked it and destroyed the negative. The Docks of New York was, in its time, the least successful of the four silents that survive, and also the most personal. For all their idiosyncrasies, Underworld and The Last Command both drew substantial audiences, the first for its ripped-from-the-headlines curiosity value, the latter for Emil Jannings and the nostalgia for prewar grandeur and epaulets then in vogue. The Docks of New York was not lacking in mass appeal, but it was a trifle late, as well as, perhaps, a touch more poetic than the crowds were willing to countenance.
One of the few people who saw The Sea Gull was the Scottish critic John Grierson, who left an epitaph that has continued to haunt perception of von Sternberg’s movies: “It was a strangely beautiful and empty affair—possibly the most beautiful I have ever seen—of net patterns, sea patterns, and hair in the wind. When a director dies, he becomes a photographer.” Grierson’s remark has lingered over the decades because of what it suggests about von Sternberg’s aestheticism, which can appear extreme at times (he had leaves on trees individually painted for at least two movies), although his aesthetics can never be divorced from the content. No one could consider The Docks of New York an empty affair, but it is true that almost any frame could stand on its own as a composition. Its beauty and its grit mark it as operatic—it shares that contrast of environmental squalor with gestural elegance that runs from La bohème to The Threepenny Opera—and indeed it is a sort of opera without music. Its plot could hardly be more elemental. Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a stoker on overnight shore leave, is headed for his favorite waterfront saloon when he sees Mae (Betty Compson) jump into the water, attempting suicide. He rescues her and, in an effort to boost her morale, offers to marry her. A farcical ceremony is carried out in the saloon by the solemn Hymn-Book Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Meanwhile, Mae’s best friend, Lou (Olga Baclanova), turns out to be married to Andy (Mitchell Lewis), the ship’s third engineer and Bill’s superior, who, however, has effectively abandoned her and spends the evening pursuing Mae, until Bill knocks him down. In the morning, after Bill leaves Mae’s room to return to his ship, he meets Andy, who tells him he has lost his job. Then Lou sees Andy entering Mae’s room. There are gunshots, and an arrest. And Bill comes to realize that he loves Mae.
Although based on a story by John Monk Saunders (who went on to specialize in daredevils of the air, including the sources of Wings and The Dawn Patrol), the plot could have been dredged up from any random sampling of prewar pulp, and could easily have been turned into a forgettable programmer. Part of its intended appeal was nostalgia, since it is set in a brawling sailors’ dive, perhaps around 1900, while made at the height of Prohibition, when the tawdry drinking establishments of the past could appear at once lurid and quaint. This cultural distance accounts for the qualities it shares with the contemporaneous operas of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht—The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—which are set in the underworlds of a London and an America cooked up by Brecht from the common pool of secondhand pulp imagery, past and present. Likewise, the figures and attributes of The Docks of New York have risen from the police blotter and the tabloid to the realm of archetype. Distance, cleansing the story of any implication of sermon or exposé, allowed a sordid milieu to become the backdrop for heroic romance.
Even so, the picture, if merely described, sounds merely sentimental. Everything that is really valuable about it hinges on von Sternberg’s treatment: its deliberate pacing, its unostentatious but exquisite framing, its delicacy cloaked in apparent gruffness, its devil-may-care romanticism. There is no guarantee, for example, that the actors alone could have carried the production. Compson is incomparable as Mae, turning in a performance of subtle strength and great poignancy, but The Docks of New York proved the apex of her career, which thereafter sloped into two decades of increasing banality. Baclanova, trained at the Moscow Art Theater, was probably as good as her turn here suggests, but her film career was so truncated—perhaps for reasons of accent after the coming of sound—that it is hard to tell. (It’s interesting that both women did their most notable other work with Tod Browning, Baclanova in Freaks and Compson in the lost film The Big City.) Bancroft, whom von Sternberg employed in four pictures, was at best a blank slate, an audience proxy, a poor man’s Wallace Beery. He is effective as Bill Roberts, just as he is effective as Bull Weed in Underworld, but there seems to be little more to him than muscle and an insidious smile. He is an attractive shill who appears to stand in the middle of every frame, but as in nearly every other von Sternberg picture, it is the women who hold the moral and emotional center.
For anyone still interested in arguing for the auteur theory, The Docks of New York is as convincing and concise an exhibit as any in existence. It exemplifies virtually every quality of von Sternberg’s films. It is theatrical, with complex but enclosed sets; it makes maximum use of lighting and atmospherics; it is nominally a melodrama but adds unexpected depth to a flimsy outline. It is justly famous for its use of slow dissolves, which serve, as Andrew Sarris noticed, “to indicate the meaninglessness of time intervals between moral decisions.” It is exquisite in its use of montage—but for all that, as Sarris also noted, this is primarily a moving-camera showcase—and its cinematography. The first is demonstrated by the delicate sequence of images showing that Lou has shot Andy, without any sign being more overt than two puffs of smoke, while the blurred subjective-camera shot of the needle Mae is trying to thread through her tears is the highlight of the second. It conveys extraordinary panache in the midst of squalor, and gives all that brio to its characters rather than depicting them from a worldly remove. It is possible to watch the whole picture without being exceptionally aware that it is silent. It is dated in nearly every particular, and yet it is somehow eternal.
Luc Sante’s books include Low Life, Kill All Your Darlings, and Folk Photography. He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.