On the Waterfront

Where the sea and the city meet, they corrupt each other. Around docks, the ocean’s margins are scummy with oil and floating garbage; the water corrodes hulls, encrusts pilings, and slimes steps. Ports cater to men who come in and out with the tide, offering them prostitutes, dives, and cheap hotels. Yet the waterfront, with its brawling sailors and squabbling gulls, also reeks of poetry. The air is saturated with moisture and melancholy; a farewell mood infiltrates everything like the salt air.

This environment is a natural breeding ground for film noir. “It’s funny how water, or rather its margins, always attracts you when you’re at a loss, don’t know what to do or where to go,” Cornell Woolrich writes in The Black Path of Fear. It also attracts those looking to dispose of a body (The Reckless Moment, Where the Sidewalk Ends), live outside the law (Pickup on South Street, Night and the City), flee the country (99 River Street), or just scrabble for an honest living in a dirty world (Edge of the City). In noir, even the beach is a place of angst, not relaxation (Woman on the Beach, Female on the Beach), and beach houses are not getaways but places where everything ends, badly (Criss Cross, Mildred Pierce, Kiss Me Deadly).

Top of post and above: The Docks of New York

The first port of call in a tour of waterfront noir is Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928); his last surviving silent film boils the harbor melodrama down to its essence. Although it opens with documentary footage of Manhattan from the East River, the movie is really set in an archetypal waterfront that could be anywhere. The thick fog that shrouds the wharves and the rickety wood-frame hotels bears no relation to actual New York weather; as in Le quai des brumes (titled Port of Shadows in English, but really translating to “Quay of Fogs”), it is rather a kind of emotional climate. The murkiness of places where things and people are mixing, trading and being traded, is what attracts von Sternberg, who would return to this setting in Macao (1952). The web of ropes and nets, the forest of masts and smokestacks, all submerged in smoke and shadows, create a dense, ensnaring atmosphere.

Von Sternberg also reveals the transitory, fugitive nature of the waterfront’s pleasures and alliances; we know from the start that Bill (George Bancroft), a stoker, has only one night ashore before sailing again. Our first sight of Mae (Betty Compson), a suicidal prostitute, is her reflection wavering on the water, then the scattered drops from the splash after she jumps in. Bill fishes her out, then presents her with new clothes (she does not know they are stolen) and proposes marriage (she does not know it is a sham), staging a wedding in the Sandbar, a rowdy tavern seething with the usual crowd of sailors and floozies.

With her wryly twisted mouth, baby-blonde hair, and delicately shadowed eyes, Betty Compson exquisitely blends shop-soiled resignation and fragile sensitivity. No one, not even Marlene Dietrich, smoked with more world-weary attitude than Compson does, exhaling all her jaded scorn for the world that has insulted and disappointed her. Bancroft gives an equally gestural performance: thrusting out his chest, hitching up his pants, and flashing his eyes. Bill is not a bad man exactly, certainly not a malicious one, but he sees women as mere temporary diversions and insists on his “freedom,” which actually means a life spent shoveling coal in the hot, sooty boiler room of a steamship and taking orders from bullying superiors.

Port of Call

Ingmar Bergman’s Port of Call (1948) echoes Docks of New York in a number of ways. It too begins with a sailor disembarking after a voyage and crossing paths with a woman who has just tried to “make a hole in the water.” (Here she walks to the edge of the pier and simply pitches forward; when she is pulled from the drink, it is not in a comely swoon like Mae, but kicking and screaming, begging to be left alone.) Again, what starts as a one-night stand becomes a more complex involvement, and both plots resolve with the woman being threatened with jail time. But the films are also as different as they look. There is no fog in Port of Call; the scenes in the harbor of Göteborg have a neorealist clarity, as cranes and masts bristle in the sunlight and stevedores unload cargos of salt and coal. 

Once the troubled relationship between Gösta (Bengt Eklund) and Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson) gathers steam, Bergman seems to lose interest in the port setting; tortured scenes exposing Berit’s wretched home life and the couple’s punishing quarrels are more his speed. When she offers to tell him the truth about her past—she has spent time in a reformatory, and had several previous affairs—he first says it doesn’t matter, that he himself is no saint. (Similarly, Bill says to Mae, “What have you done that makes you worse than me?”) Yet Gösta proves unable to cope with the knowledge that she has been with other men, withdrawing into drunken rage and self-pity. Eventually they reconcile and plan to sail far away from their problems. The waterfront’s proximity to a promise—usually a false one—of escape is another thing that makes it a great noir setting, since without the mirage of freedom, the reality of captivity would not be so crushing.

This truth underlies one of the toughest of waterfront dramas, Leo Mittler’s Harbor Drift (1929), set in a Hamburg that makes von Sternberg’s New York docks look like Disneyland. This bleak but dazzling entry in the Weimar-era cycle of strassefilme (“street films”) follows three destitute outcasts, all nameless, who personify the bitter struggle to survive on the streets: a prostitute (Lissy Arna), an unemployed longshoreman (Fritz Genschow), and an old beggar (Paul Rehkopf). A string of pearls dropped by a wealthy woman becomes the catalyst for the plot, as they all grasp at a fantasy of wealth and escape. The necklace brings fleeting happiness—when the streetwalker sets out to seduce the young man to get hold of it, they fall in love for one blissful night—then ignites hatred and violence when the beggar selfishly refuses to sell the pearls to save her from selling herself. In the end there is only greed and fear, desperation and the degrading transactions of hunger and survival.

Cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund blends expressionist shadows and spasms of frenetic editing—evoking the distorting intensity of these people’s inner lives—with gorgeous documentary-style footage of the industrial docks, huge ships and cranes looming against backlit smoke, and the maze of decrepit alleys and darkly shimmering canals lined with rotting houseboats. The headquarters of this neighborhood is a sordid basement bar presided over by a raffish, bowler-hatted crime kingpin (a surprisingly menacing Sig Arno). In this late-silent masterpiece, the characters speak through potent images, like the hooker taking off her makeup and gazing into the mirror at smears of mascara that look like bruises. Lissy Arna, with her sullen intelligence and damaged sexiness, plays a bracingly unsentimental version of the fallen woman, a figure often presented as an icon of seamy glamour and romantic tragedy, as in Arcady Boytler’s popular Mexican drama of betrayal, prostitution, and incest La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934).

One of the most delicate and sensitive of waterfront fallen woman sagas is Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), a silent film from the fruitful period when Japanese cinema held out against the coming of sound. (One of the earliest Japanese talkies was Yasujiro Shimazu’s First Steps Ashore [1932], a reworking of Docks of New York set in Yokohama; Japan continued to produce silent films until the late 1930s. Japanese Girls opens with a pan around a broad harbor, smoke pouring from the funnels of ocean liners, flags snapping on riggings and confetti streamers billowing as a ship sets sail. Two schoolgirls in sailor-collared uniforms watch from a hillside. “I feel sad watching ships leave the port,” one says. “All Yokohama girls feel that way,” the other replies.

As the camera smoothly tracks them along their daily walks from school, the two friends pledge their loyalty, but a rift soon appears when Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) abandons Dora (Yukiko Inoue) to run off with the motorcycle-riding Henry (Ureo Egawa). And when Sunako realizes her boyfriend is seeing another woman, she shoots her rival—in a church, no less—and begins a drifting life as a dance-hall hostess. Years later she returns to Yokohama, where Dora and Henry are now married, and not quite intentionally lures the weak-willed Henry away from his wife. Shimizu tells this complex melodrama through a series of elegant stylistic devices, like the gliding shots of women walking in pairs, a motif picked up by lovely scenes of Sunako and her fellow B-girl Masumi (Yumeko Aizome) strolling along the waterfront with parasols. When Sunako confronts her rival, the camera moves in on her in a staccato sequence of jump cuts, repeated at the end in a climactic recognition scene. At times, rather than exiting the frame, characters simply fade out; in a witty moment, Sunako’s dance-hall boss says, “I guess I’m in the way. I’ll get lost,” then dissolves as he is walking toward the door.

But while these flourishes are exciting, they never distract from the humanism of the story; all of the flawed characters are treated with clear-eyed tenderness. Oikawa’s expressive performance minutely details Sunako’s internal struggle between jealousy and loyalty, the guilt and insecurity under her hard-boiled pose. Even the secondary characters are striking individuals. Lanky, bashful Tatsuo Saito plays a bearded, beret-sporting painter who tags along with Sunako, his unrequited obsession leading him to accept the humiliating role of a servant—at one point, he dons a frilly apron and does her laundry. Masumi is even more intriguing, a beautiful tough cookie who smiles sweetly while biting off lines like “Life is short, but troubles are endless.” She has some kind of shady hustle, perhaps a blackmail scheme, and when the police show up she makes a stylish exit, shrugging, “Crime doesn’t pay!”

Masumi recalls Olga Baclanova’s character in Docks of New York, another lady of the pavements who takes care of Mae after her plunge. When her no-good husband is found dead in Mae’s room, she steps up gallantly: “I shot him, and no one else is going to get the credit for it.” In Port of Call, there is Gertrude, Berit’s more jaded, bad-girl pal from the reformatory, who turns to her for help after a botched, illegal abortion. These friends serve as a warning to the heroines, an illustration of the perils of the wrong path, but they are also charismatic figures of female defiance in a world grossly stacked against them. “I hope you have better luck than me,” Baclanova says as she climbs into a police wagon, “but I doubt it.”

Port of Shadows

Pessimism drifts through all these films, but nowhere is it thicker, or more romantically savored, than in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Port of Shadows (1938). On a barren spit of land overlooking the industrial docks, a weathered shack (“Chez Panama”) provides a haven for washed-up outcasts, including a suicidal painter and a drunk whose eternally thwarted dream is to sleep once between clean sheets. Jean (Jean Gabin), a soldier who has deserted the colonial army, puts it simply: “Life’s a bitch,” he tells the beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) while taking her to a carnival on a date. The next morning, as they linger in a hotel room where they have shared one perfect night, a newspaper brings word that Jean is wrongly suspected of murder. Fatalism itself, he shrugs: “If it weren’t this, it would be something else.”

When Jean first materializes out of the fog on the road to Le Havre, he is a bone-weary figure of defeat whose cool fatigue gives way to sudden eruptions of fury. In the back room at Panama’s he sees Nelly, a slender, luminous-eyed vision in a beret and a shimmering plastic raincoat, at once severely glamorous and heartbreakingly vulnerable. He assumes—understandably, given the location—that she is a prostitute, but she is actually taking refuge from her creepy guardian, Zabel (Michel Simon), a sanctimonious hypocrite who can’t keep his hands off her. When Jean later confronts Zabel, he explodes with all-encompassing rage: “Every time something good happens, filth like you come along and ruin it.”

Mournfully watching the sun rise over the ocean or sitting on a wharf looking at the trash bobbing in the water, Gabin and Morgan share an entrancing, seductive melancholy beside which happiness seems crass and unattractive. Perhaps only the French can pull this off. Jean and Nelly’s fleeting idyll falls victim to violent envy and stupid muddles—this is the realism part, grafted to the poetic style of Prévert’s dialogue, Alexandre Trauner’s moody sets, and Eugen Schüfftan’s smoky, soft-focus camerawork, in which shadows look like charcoal blended by fingertip. On top of it all is Maurice Jaubert’s somber, dirgelike score, which soars above a merciless final shot of the ocean liner that was supposed to carry Jean to safety sailing out of the harbor without him.

Poetic realism is a form in which two elements meet and mingle in a border space where sharp distinctions are dissolved. Waterfronts make such fertile locations for drama because they are regions of fluidity and ambiguity, of transit and impermanence, where many things meet and separate. Plots and motifs, themes and images migrate from one country to another, one era to the next, turning up in another film like a sailor in a new port. Filmmakers, actors, and technicians circulate too: Schüfftan went from developing special effects processes for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in Germany to crafting the sfumato look of Port of Shadows to lensing Edgar G. Ulmer’s Paris-set B noir Bluebeard (1944) to winning a best-cinematography Oscar for Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961).

It is no wonder that film noir, most at home in the murk and on the edge, always gravitated to waterfronts. Where the sea meets the city, the familiar meets the unfathomable. The depths that start somewhere off the docks are a reminder: it is easy to get in over your head.