The Docks of New York at 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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