The Docks of New York (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

Came out the same year as Street Angel and The Passion of Joan of Arc, just as Hollywood was gearing up to make sound films exclusively. A period piece, but this movie was made so long ago that I can’t tell how much earlier it was set. Sternberg’s modern-day Underworld seems just as much of a period piece now. I watched with the Donald Sosin score featuring sung vocals in a few spots – interesting idea, and not so bad, but give me the Alloy Orchestra any day.

Ol’ George Bancroft gets to throw his bulk around some more, but he doesn’t roar laughter as much as he did in Underworld. He plays a furnace stoker on a ship, given one night of shore leave by boss Mitchell Lewis (of the original Ben-Hur). This is clearly not a good job, since it’s the same task Emil Jannings was forced to do by the revolutionaries in The Last Command, but George isn’t letting it get him down. Right after he gets cleaned up, he sees a girl (Betty Compson of The Great Gabbo and Tod Browning’s lost The Big City) attempt suicide by jumping in the water, and George jumps in to save her. He spends the rest of the evening with her, trying to cheer her up, and finally on a lark, offering to marry her.

It’s not strictly a legal wedding, since George doesn’t file the necessary papers in the morning – instead he sneaks off and prepares to return to the ship. But Mitchell has been creeping around George’s girl, having been rebuffed by his own wife (Olga Baklanova, baddie in Freaks) who resents being abandoned while he’s shipbound all year – at the saloon wedding between George and Betty, Olga offers her own wedding ring to the couple, saying “I hope it does you more good than it did me.” Mitch is now determined to get a girl before he’s due back on the ship. A struggle ensues – Betty shoots and kills him, but Olga rushes over to take the blame. Poor Betty is in trouble again, this time over her clothes, which George stole to keep her warm after the dock-jumping incident. But he’s decided to jump ship, own up to his crime and make good on his mock marriage vows.

Mitchell and Olga:

It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful movie, and almost as romantic as City Lights. I loved the last two Sternbergs I watched also, hard to say which I liked best. L. Sante: “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.”

Watched half of the DVD extra (made for TV in ’68) in which a Swedish guy shows us clips from Sternberg’s silents and gathers brief thoughts from the director. After the silents, he runs out of clips and starts showing posters instead.

L. Sante again:

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.

JvS: “All my films were made inside of a studio. I don’t like the outside.”