Thu, 30 Nov 2023

The Docks of New York

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman (titles by Julian Johnson; suggested by "The Dock Walloper" by John Monk Saunders)
Stars: George Bancroft (Bill Roberts), Betty Compson (Mae), Olga Baclanova (Lou), Clyde Cook ("Sugar" Steve), Mitchell Lewis (Andy, the Third Engineer), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Hymn Book Harry), Guy Oliver (The Crimp), May Foster (Mrs. Crimp), Lillian Worth (Steve's Girl)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1928
Country: U.S.
The Docks of New York Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The Docks of New York

The story in Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, his fourth production for Paramount Pictures in two years, is slight, but it is one the great director's most visually impressive silent films. Awash in mist and smoke, it is a masterpiece of expressive light and shadow that lies somewhere between the radical experiments of the German Expressionists in the early 1920s and the adoption of their techniques by the directors of film noir in the 1940s. The film's titular setting further connects it to noir, a genre strangely obsessed with water and piers, although its overall romanticism, rough-hewn though it may be, stands in stark contrast to the post-war emphasis in film noir on crime and betrayal and loss and fatalism. In The Docks of New York, the characters are in full command of their lives and act accordingly.

In his second collaboration with von Sternberg after the 1927 hit gangster film Underworld, the indomitable George Bancroft plays Bill Roberts, a tough-talking, hard-living man who earns his living shoveling coal into the boilers of a massive steamship that is out to sea for months at a time. When the film opens, the ship has pulled into port in New York, and Bill and the other seamen have one evening on land before they must report back to duty. Washing off the oily sheen of coal dust and sweat that covers their bodies, the men head into port to spend their few free hours drinking at the Sandbar, which, like the Dream Caf in Underworld and the titular cabaret in The Blue Angel (1930), is a quintessential von Sternberg space, packed with rowdy characters and constantly flirting with danger.

Bill's destiny does not reside in the Sandbar, however, but rather just outside of it where he saves a young woman named Mae (Betty Compson) from drowning herself in the harbor for reasons that are never made entirely clear (something to do with bad luck ...). While she is at first bitter that Bill has thwarted her suicide attempt, she soon takes him up on an offer to spend one night living life his way, which involves lots of drinking and carousing and fighting. She's as thin and pretty as he is burly and rough, and they would seem to have nothing in common, especially since she has apparently given up on life, which she projects as cock-eyed attitude, while Bill, after spending so much of his time shoveling coal in a ship's bowels, violently embraces every free moment he has. Yet, as the night progresses, they find a spark together, and Bill boldly proposes marriage right then and there ("You don't know Bill Roberts. I'll try anything once," he roars). Of course, he is due back to sea the next morning and will likely be gone for months at a time, which puts the future of their sudden romance in imminent danger.

While the conclusion is surprisingly sentimental and quite absurd (the screenplay was by Jules Furthman, who wrote eight of von Sternberg's films and also wrote regularly for Howard Hawks), it can't take away from the film's astounding visual impact. The cinematographer Harold Rosson, who would go on to shoot such disparate cinematic landmarks as Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939), King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain (1952), turns each frame into a study in razor-sharp contrast, which is heightened by the almost dreamlike presence of billowing smoke and mist from which characters are constantly emerging and disappearing, often framed by fishing nets and crooked poles.

As he did in both Underworld and The Last Command, his previous Paramount films, von Sternberg finds consistently intriguing ways to shape his avant-garde tendencies for mainstream tastes, creating a sense of poetic realism that is usually associated with French directors of the era like Jean Renoir and Marcel Carn (von Sternberg's double life growing up in both Europe and the U.S. likely contributed to this tendency). So, for example, when Mae attempts to commit suicide, we don't see it directly, but rather as a reflection in the gently undulating surface of the water, which underscores the sense of mystery around her character while also reflecting visually her despondent state of mind (similarly, von Sternberg depicts a murder via a flock of seagulls suddenly taking flight). The film's most heartrending moment is a subjective shot that allows us to see how Mae can't thread a needle through the tears in her eyes. His use of gliding camera movements-the kind that would become virtually extinct for several years after the adoption of synchronized sound, which required equipment that was too cumbersome for such agility-draws us into the filmic world (especially the raucous Sandbar), which is both gritty in its detail and yet slightly removed from reality. The resulting film is visually evocative and narratively intriguing, such that even its generally terrible ending can't quite undermine the overall sense that you have just seen something profoundly of its time and ahead of it.

The Docks of New York Criterion Collection Blu-ray
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg Criterion Collection Blu-ray BoxsetThe Docks of New York is available exclusively via The Criterion Collection's "3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg" Blu-ray box set, which also includes Underworld (1927) and The Last Command (1928)

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (all three films)

  • Linear PCM 2.0 stereo (all three films)
  • SubtitlesNone

  • Video essay by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom
  • Video essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher
  • Swedish television interview from 1968 with director Josef von Sternberg
  • 96-page booklet with essays by Geoffrey O'Brien, Anton Kaes, and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by the composers; Ben Hecht's original story for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 8, 2019

    All three films in the "3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg" Criterion Collection Blu-ray box feature the same high-definition transfers that were used nine years ago for their DVD boxset, except now they are presented in their full resolution (which also means that the dreaded windowboxing has been removed). All three films were subjected to extensive digital restoration, resulting in images that are among the best I have seen of films of this vintage. Underworld was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain positive print, The Last Command was transferred from a 35mm duplicate negative, and The Docks of New York was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. Of the three films, I would say that Docks looks consistently the best, with incredible contrast and black levels; there are occasional sequences that show significant scratching, usually around reel transfers, but most of the film is remarkably clean and stable. The same goes for Underworld, which also shows some signs of damage in the form of scratches and vertical hairlines, but very little given the film's age. The Last Command probably looks the worst, although the term "worst" is entirely relative here, as it still looks better than most silent films on home video. The image is slightly softer and more grayish, and there appears to be more damage that couldn't be digitally corrected. Suffice it to say, though, that all three films look amazing for their age, and Criterion has done a magnificent job preserving them. Each of the films also comes with a choice of two different lossless Linear PCM two-channel stereo soundtracks. All three films have new orchestral scores written exclusively for this release by Robert Israel. Underworld and The Last Command also feature slightly less conventional orchestral scores by Alloy Orchestra (which premiered in 2007 and 2008 at the New York and Telluride Film Festivals, respectively), and The Docks of New York includes a piano- and vocal-based scored by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. All six scores sound clean and robust and add greatly to the pleasure of the viewing experience, regardless of which one you choose.

    The supplements included here are also the same as those that were included in the DVD boxset. Underworld and The Last Command are each accompanied by a detailed, informative visual essay, each of which runs about 35 minutes. In "Underworld: How It Came to Be," UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom spends 36 minutes studying the film's fine details, as well as discussing its relationship to von Sternberg's earlier films, including The Salvation Hunters, from which many clips are included. On The Last Command disc, Tag Gallagher contributes an essay titled "Sternberg Until '29," which focuses primarily on the director's biography and early works, with about five minutes devoted to a detailed exploration of each of the three films included in this boxset. On The Docks of New York disc we have a 1968 interview with von Sternberg (40 min.) from Swedish television, in which he discusses the entirety of his career, with quite a bit of attention paid to his silent films. The boxset also includes a beautifully designed 96-page booklet with essays by critics Geoffrey O'Brien, Anton Kaes, and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by their composers; Ben Hecht's original story treatment for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry about actor Emil Jannings.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)


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