The Docks of New York at Film Forum


The Docks of New York
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
UCLA Film and Television Archive
March 22, Film Forum

Under the direction of Jo von Sternberg, a Jamaica High School dropout and rising star at Paramount, Hans Dreier built a gorgeous ramshackle East River waterfront to be hidden in studio fog. It's the setting for a tale of New York that marries true crimer Herbert Asbury's lowlife mythology with the gloomy romance of Dostoevsky's White Nights, transporting the audience of 1928—the zenith of silent filmmaking—to a roughneck yesteryear. George Bancroft plays an I-can-lick-any-sonofabitch-in-the-house steamboat stoker emerged from his stygian belowdecks for a one-night shore leave. While swaggering over to his local, the Sandbar, he stops, drags from his cigarette, and jumps into the brine after a foundering suicide. The oblique visual shorthand of the jump—a hesitant reflection, a ripple, some splash—shows von Sternberg's mastery; the bit with the cigarette shows Bancroft's perfect embodiment of lumbering deliberation—once he starts to move, he's unstoppable. His catch turns out to be Betty Compson's broken-down good-time girl; her suppliant loveliness, in graceful close-ups, becomes the film's emotional mooring while they pass the night together in the riotous Sandbar, where the gliding camera is the only thing that's not overturned. In a way lost to contemporary social-work movies, von Sternberg's unsentimental poetic realism ennobles his lower-class protagonists through beauty. Classic.


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