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

!!! A+ FILM !!!

When I was first trying to learn about silent cinema — largely without access to the films in question — I found many descriptions of The Docks of New York, none of which really articulated or attempted to explain its actual story. All spoke of lyricism, intoxication, as though the film were some sort of pure abstraction, not “about” anything. Upon finally encountering it many years later, I made two discoveries: one is that the film actually weaves a tale that is extremely, quite deceptively simple and straightforward, one that could be summarized in a cutting sentence: a hard-living dock worker comes ashore for a night, rescues a suicidal woman from drowning, then manipulates her into an overnight sham marriage he has no intention of maintaining. Secondarily, no one describes Docks in those terms because laying out its plot doesn’t even begin to give an indication of its poetry. It would be like labeling the aesthetically comparable L’Atalante as the story of a bickering honeymoon couple.

Josef von Sternberg’s finest, most ravishing and heartbreaking silent film is the peak of the ethereal, wrenching beauty and despair exhibited in his other contemporary works for Paramount, Underworld and The Last Command; all three are devastating, but this one is made more so by its lack of distance from day-to-day life. Unlike the gangsters, czarists and Hollywood filmmakers populating those narratives, its blue collar workers and bar denizens could be almost any of us, and Von Sternberg is humane enough to magnify the matters of our own hearts until they overwhelm the screen, and lend weight to the undeniably gorgeous images he conjures.

Inevitably, you first notice the intoxicating, almost overwhelming atmosphere wrought in the studio to evoke the world of the title. From the grimy end of the work day to the harbor itself to the unhinged, freewheeling hedonism of the dockside bar at which much of the film’s action takes place, we are completely drenched in fog and sadness. During a 12-hour period this ill-advised relationship between two nothing-to-lose characters is formed and then compromised and abandoned, with equally hopeless lives from around the waterfront cheering on every moment in a strange way, a forlorn Greek chorus that we sense has seen it all before. Hopelessness itself becomes a guard these people use to shield themselves from unfathomable misery. In its perception of suicide, fraught emotion, men being cads because they know nothing else to be, this is as sobering and palpably real as The Crowd; you could spend a lot of time dwelling on the complexity of the occupants and setting in both films — faces in the foreground and background, all pervaded with longing, and the suggestion that if the camera were to linger for a bit more time past its leads, there would be an infinite number of equally poignant stories surrounding us.

But we are here with these specific people, and it is an enriching experience even as it gazes into the void of fear, desperation, and the haunting presence of what can’t be said. In some ways it is the perfect story for silent cinema, despite seeming actively timeless, free of post-modern irony and closer to the cinema of Bergman or Ozu in its deep empathy and the sense of importance it gleans from unadorned human emotion. Its entire narrative, that of its central couple Bill Roberts and the broken Mae as well as the parallel fraying marriage between the perpetually angry engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) and his wife Lou (Olga Baclanova), is telegraphed in glances, pauses, avoidance. Dialogue beyond the sparse titles would offer no more explanation of these people than the actors already provide in their transcendent performances.

George Bancroft, so larger than life in Underworld, is achingly believable here; not a Wallace Beery-style brute with a heart of gold but an actually amoral force of nature who thinks no further than a few hours into the future, and until the finale seems self-interested to the exclusion of all the world and even, to an extent, his own potential contentment. Betty Compson’s characterization of Mae is deeply and extraordinarily touching largely because it has no simple thesis; a woman at the end of her rope who’s introduced with her leap into the New York harbor then is led through lust, hope, love, distress and anger by the events set into motion by Bill Roberts’ rescue, she is a three-dimenional lost soul whose plight neither Compson nor the film itself is interested in reducing to obvious metrics. Hers could be a tearjerking, shallow tragedy — briefly given a reason to live then broken and abandoned once again — but instead has the spirit and chaos of lived-in disappointment, unapologetic in its vividness and extremity. Baclanova and Lewis’ characters, too, avoid the superficial telegraphed narrative that their fraying relationship could easily imply, and so much of their success at presenting these as genuine human beings is in the painfully lifelike manner of their cold, embittered interactions.

My first time through The Docks of New York, I admitted to being frustrated by the final scenes, which seemed too much of a “happy end” copout to me along the lines of The Wind, Victor Sjostrom’s haunting narrative of a woman alone that abruptly spins into controversial patness seconds before the fadeout. Essentially, when Bill Roberts wakes up and prepares to move on with his life forever — briefly moved enough by the sad image of his “wife” reclining, temporarily at peace, to leave an extra couple of bucks on her nightstand, a perfectly gruff and meaningless gesture — he ignores every confrontation his behavior elicits, a peripheral crime of passion included, until he has a change of heart after boarding his ship and returning to work, an admittedly unlikely moment of redemtion that’s tempered somewhat by a courtroom scene that follows wherein Mae has been arrested for pilfering some clothes that Bill actually stole and gave to her. He takes the rap and goes to jail for her, and she promises to wait forever for him. It rang false to me initially, but on revisiting, I’m not entirely sure this final encounter is even particularly optimistic, with a palpable air of uncertainty to the beautiful closing pull away from her standing frozen in the courtroom, as she gets swallowed by other people and other cases. There’s no comparison to the silliness of The Wind‘s ending, which has never stopped me from considering that a great film. And everything before that moment is so flawlessly haunting it can scarcely negate the picture’s overarching tone of beguiling sorrow.

This was Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate silent film (and the last one to survive today, with The Case of Lena Smith now sadly lost); it dates from what by some measures may be the peak year of pure cinema in America, in which the Hollywood studios and their best directors had attained a singular language and artistic confidence that was producing work of phantasmagoric beauty and brilliance soon to be disrupted by the onslaught of talkies, though this judgment is inevitably based on the small percentage of pictures that have managed to remain culturally relevant today, perhaps an unreasonable sample size. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to view films like this and The Last Command as well as The Crowd, The Wind, The Man Who Laughs, The Wedding March and Chaplin’s The Circus, all from 1928, and not at least briefly lament the loss of such synthesized energy and grace among these outstanding artists.

I’m writing this on a week whose film-related discourse has been dominated by a controversy over some remarks Martin Scorsese made about the glut of serialized comic book movies, which have effectively shut out all other brands of popular and unpopular entertainment from regional multiplexes like those near me, and there has been some blowback against perceived snobbery from cinephile circles. Deep down I do fully agree with the concept that great art can come from anywhere, and that no individual or kind of individual has a right to decide what greatness means for anyone but themselves. Reliving an infinitely evocative film like The Docks of New York simultaneously makes me more and less sympathetic to the cult that surrounds something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the one hand, as infuriating as I know this line of thought can be, how can anyone look at a sequence like that in which Bancroft wakes up and sneaks out of the loft, surrounded by braying seagulls and with an entire novel written in each line of his face and not be affected? In what sense is it somehow snobbish to like this presentation of a yearning, conflicted, enigmatic moment between people and to dislike any other given piece of popular entertainment that would never even attempt to articulate this kind of subtle, heartfelt mood?

Secondly, and conversely, I think of all the people who responded with hurt to Scorsese’s comments — which I hasten to add I think everyone is inflating unreasonably beyond one fairly authoritative person’s opinion, which is all it is — because of how profoundly affected they say they’ve been by those movies, and what I respond to in that line of argument is that we do badly need to connect with people through art. I think it’s a basic need, and I think that if that need isn’t being met then you almost have no choice but to turn to whatever popular entertainment is available to you to try and dredge up those feelings, to make it OK to talk about things that can’t really be talked about, even if — in Marvel films, for instance — they are weighted down with tropes and metaphors I find exasperatingly silly. What I’m getting at is, watching Von Sternberg’s film play out, I wish so desperately I could share it with you somehow, to experience it and discuss it outside of a vacuum, to talk about movies like this outside the world of cinephiles and critics who’ve seen it all, and return to just coping with and processing its ideas on an interpersonal basis rather than strictly in the context of movies as a hobby or even as an artform with the weight of historical narrative behind it. This summer I’ve found myself more and more returning to the basic joy of appreciating great films as experiences, as art, untethered from critical vernacular; and I wish like crazy I knew more people who got the same pleasure from doing that. Like the characters in this film, I feel a certain desperation to connect in this terribly lonely world, which is the same lonely one in 2019 as in 1928. In other words, if you’re still reading at this point, I’d just like to say: hello.

[Includes some material from my Letterboxd capsule of the film from 2016.]

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