Josef von Sternberg's THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is a pictorial tour de force featuring stunning black-and-white cinematography that elevates a routine story about a stoker who falls for a waterfront tramp into one of the most visually impressive of all silent films.
Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a brawny stoker on a steamship, comes ashore in New York for one night's leave and saves the life of Sadie (Betty Compson), a pretty streetwalker who has tried to commit suicide by jumping into the river. Bill fishes her out of the water and carries her to a
waterfront bar, then goes out and returns with some new clothes for her to wear. Also at the bar is the steamship's third engineer (Mitchell Lewis), who makes a pass at Sadie and is beaten up by Bill. After getting drunk, Bill decides to marry Sadie as a lark, which she goes along with, although
she has hopes that Bill will really stay with her.
The next morning, however, Bill gives Sadie some money and tells her he has to return to the ship. As he's leaving, the third engineer comes into Sadie's room and tries to make love to her and he's shot and killed by his wife Lou (Baclanova). Sadie is arrested for the crime, but Lou comes forward
and confesses. Bill returns to the ship, but jumps off and swims ashore as it's pulling out of the harbor. When he goes to the bar, he's told that Sadie has been arrested for possession of stolen clothing. Bill goes to court and admits that he stole the clothes from a pawn shop for Sadie. He's
sentenced to 60 days in jail and asks Sadie to wait for him, promising that he'll stay with her and won't return to the ship when he's released.
THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is a superb example of von Sternberg's ability to transform a melodramatic plot into a great movie through sheer directorial skill and the power of his visuals. The film is an exquisite symphony of light and shade, with the great cinematographer Harold Rosson (THE WIZARD OF
OZ, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) employing extensive backlighting, fog, and mist to create one incredible composition after another: the reflection of Sadie as she jumps into the water and causes it to ripple, the silhouetted figures of Bill and Sadie as he carries her to the bar and light streams around
the outlines of their bodies, Sadie's tear-stained POV as she reluctantly sews a button on Bill's jacket so he can leave her; the list is endless.
von Sternberg also evokes a palpable and overwhelming sense of atmosphere through the use of his patented slow dissolves and minute visual details, such as the drawings of naked women inside the ship's boiler room and the tattoos on Bill's arm, the introduction of the sordid waterfront bar
(brilliantly framed by identical reverse tracking shots), and quick cuts of the steamship's engine room and the glistening faces of the men as they shovel coal into the furnaces, making one practically feel the sweat and grime. As Sadie, Betty Compson exudes a potent sense of vulnerable sluttiness
and George Bancroft does his usual hard-drinking, hard-loving lug characterization quite capably, but THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is really a director's and cinematographer's picture if ever there was one and on that account it's nothing less than masterly. (Adult situations.) leave a comment