"The Docks of New York" - Josef von Sternberg (1928)

Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate silent film, The Docks of New York (1928), was one of this master visual stylist’s most moody explorations of romantic fatalism.  Set on the New York dockside in the early 1900s, it tells the story of two aimless, disconnected souls who manage to make an unlikely connection.

The film’s story, written by Jules Furthman, who would collaborate with von Sternberg on seven later films, is relatively simple.  What makes the film last in one’s memory is its evocation of loneliness and isolation among characters whose dark-world horizons only extend to the next day.

Von Sternberg’s cinematic skills are conspicuously on display here, and they encompass more than his well-known virtuosity in the display of light and shadow.  There is also here a wonderful manipulation of dramatic pacing, whereby some moments are drawn out with melancholy languor, which are  punctuated by brief, explosive moments of dramatic violence.  Such is the way, we are led to believe, of life among the lower depths.

The Docks of New York's narrative passes through five successive stages concerning the improbable relationship of the two main characters.

1.  A Meeting by Happenstance
The beginning images show a steamship docking at New York’s harbor.  The fact that this film’s story is set probably at least twenty years earlier than its time of production is important for two narrative purposes.  Most shipping at that earlier time was still powered by coal-driven steam engines, whose furnaces were constantly fed by dust-covered, grimy coal stokers.  It is hard to imagine a more miserable occupation than having to work hard in such squalid conditions.  Also, the film is set in the years before US alcohol Prohibition [1], so the film’s audience was offered the titillation of seeing the working class engage in one of their limited opportunities for reckless indulgence.

The steamship docks at the waterfront, and the coal stokers are given leave to go ashore, with the stern, but probably fruitless, warning from the ship’s third engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) not to come back drunk.  The scene then shifts to a dockside bar, The Sandbar, where Andy and the stokers intend to spend their limited free time.  There Andy runs into his estranged wife, Lou (Olga Baclanova), whom he had abandoned three years earlier, and it is evident that there is no love lost between the two of them. 

Meanwhile stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft)  notices just after having disembarked from the ship that a young woman has made a suicidal dive into the harbor. He jumps in and rescues her, and then he carries the still unconscious girl over to an empty boarding room above The Sandbar. The establishment’s belligerent proprietors object to Bill Roberts’s peremptory possession of one of their rooms, and they summon one of their bouncers to oust the two intruders.  This is where we get an example of von Sternberg’s disjointed pacing.  Up to now (and in fact throughout) Roberts is shown to be a man of few words, and he does not initiate conflict.  But when the bouncer attempts to throw out Roberts, the powerful stoker throttles him in seconds and returns to his business.

Lou, who also occupies a room above The Sandbar, hears the ruckus and comes over to where the young woman, who will be revealed as Mae (Betty Compson), is lying.  She attends to the girl and orders Bill Roberts to go downstairs and get her a hot drink.

2.  Bill Attends to Mae
Bill goes down to the bar, where some more tough guys try to muscle him, but Bill throttles them in seconds, too.  He brings back a “hot toddy” and sees that Mae is now revived – in fact, unrealistically so, since her hair now looks beautifully coiffed as if she had just emerged from a salon.  Such is von Sternberg’s expressionistic dreamworld. Learning that Mae doesn’t have any clothing aside from her soaked dress, Bill goes down to a shuttered clothing store and pilfers some items to take back to Mae’s room. 

Mae is still despondent and suicidal.  She tells Bill, “you could of saved yourself the trouble an let me die”. Bill doesn't think that way. Although Mae seems to be a woman of “easy virtue”, she is beautiful, and Bill is instantly attracted.  He tells her that all she needs is a good time to cheer her up.

3.  The Party at The Sandbar
Bill and Mae go the crowded bar, and Bill quickly gets very drunk.  When Bill’s boss Andy sees Mae, he is immediately attracted and tries to push Bill aside; but he gets punched out for his efforts – noone pushes Bill around.  A ruckus ensues, and only the efforts of Lou and Mae manage to calm things down. 

Bill, now feeling his oats, announces to everyone in the bar that he intends to marry Mae (whom he calls “Nell”) immediately.  Mae happily agrees. A preacher (Gustav von Seyffertitz) from a nearby mission is summoned, and the next ten minutes of the film feature a raucous, drunken marriage ceremony. Again von Sternberg varies the pace, though, and when the marriage vows are exchanged, everything slows down while Mae solemnly promises to be a good wife.  The contrast between Mae’s concession to her interior innocence and the cynical surroundings of the drunken bar revellers is another von Sternberg touch that is likely to leave a lasting memory with the viewer.

4.  The Next Morning
But, of course, Bill was drunk that night and scarcely knew what he was doing.  After having spent the night with Mae, he intends to return to his ship and sail away.  While she is still sleeping, he leaves a “tip” on her night table and sneaks out of her room. 

When Andy learns that Bill has abandoned Mae, he quickly goes to her room and tries to have his way with her.  But Lou follows him into the room, and soon shots are heard (von Sternberg’s camera remains outside, and the gunshots are evoked by showing birds rustling form their perches). Hearing the gunshots and seeing the police come, Bill returns to Mae’s room, where Lou confesses that she was the one who shot her husband. 

Now alone again in Mae’s room, Bill confesses that he is incorrigible and never really meant to fulfill his marriage vows.  His ship is leaving in one hour, and he tells her,
“I never missed a ship in my life.”
 . . .
“You knew I was just a dirty stoker.”
Their parting is sad.  Mae offers to mend Bill’s torn shirt before he leaves, but her eyes are so teary she cannot even see well enough to thread her sewing needle.  Finally she loses her temper and angrily orders Bill out of her room.

5.  A Change of Mind
Bill is back on the ship stoking coal as it sets out in the harbor.  Andy is there, too, barking out orders to the stokers. Living in this loathsome routine and environment again, Bill finally takes action.  He jumps ship, swims ashore, and finds his way to a courtroom, where Mae has been charged for stealing the new clothes she is wearing. She has just been sentenced to thirty days in jail, but Bill interrupts the proceedings, asserting that he is her husband and that he had stolen the clothes. The unsympathetic judge orders Mae released and sentences Bill to sixty days in prison for his impertinence. As he is being led away by the police, Bill turns to Mae and tells her that if she waits for him, he will never leave her again. Mae smiles hopefully and says she will wait forever.
Von Sternberg’s films are often situated in exotic, fantasy-laden settings – Morocco, Spain, Shanghai, Imperial Russia – where the surrounding circumstances are (to the viewer) mysterious and threatening.  Note that von Sternberg never travelled to these places; he conjured up everything inside the studio, where he could shape the shadow-laden atmosphere of his imagination without concern for documentary reality.  The principal characters in these stories are not given much psychological grounding (they rarely articulate what they are thinking or intend), but we empathize with them anyway.  As such, these films are prime examples of film noir,despite their exotic settings. The characters’ backgrounds are unknown and unimportant; and their futures are dim.  As Andrew Sarris said [2],
“His [von Sternberg’s] characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love.”

In these films, there is often an outer story of external action and an inner story concerning the relationship between the man and the woman whom fate brings together.  The outer story is often a war, or a revolution, or a spy mission, and this can serve up some excitement.  But von Sternberg ultimately brings our attention to the inner story, where the real action takes place.  In The Docks of New York this is taken to an extreme, since there is virtually no outer story; everything is the inner story in this film.

It is interesting to compare The Docks of New York with two other films that share some similarities with it: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Ingmar Bergman’s Port of Call (1948).  Carné’s film has the noirish features of a dark, gloomy seaport and lost souls, but the outer story is relatively complicated and dominates the story.  Bergman’s film, on the other hand, has even more direct similarities with The Docks of New York, since it is also about a seaman who eventually falls in love with a woman who has just suicidally thrown herself into the harbor waters when he had just come ashore. But Bergman’s film is more psychologically motivated than von Sternberg’s. The viewer is given much more information about what the character’s are thinking about in Bergman’s film. This might suggest in the reader's mind that the acting is less significant in von Sternberg's film, but that is not true.  The performances of the two main characters in The Docks of New York are nuanced and effective. We don’t think about the characters shown, instead we feel for them directly and immediately.

For example, George Bancroft’s’ Bill Roberts character is a ruffian used to getting his way with his fists.  And yet he often pauses in reflection and seems to contemplate his surroundings with  a wry smile.  He seems to be fair-minded, at least within the limitations of his own moral universe, and in the end he vows to do the right thing.  

Of course, as is usually the case in von Sternberg’s films, the affective focus is on the woman.  Betty Compson’s Mae character is interesting, because although she portrays a person who seems to have been hardened by circumstances, she evinces sensitivity.  Inside her sometimes caustic exterior, Mae is revealed to be an innocent young woman in search of love. And von Sternberg artfully reveals this interior, not with words, but by means of her emotive glances gorgeously ensconced in his chiaroscuro-sculpted cinematography. 

Von Sternberg intuitively understood that the film medium had the unique capability of evoking in the viewer not only a narrative understanding of how events progress in the world, but their emotional feelings, too. 

At the end, in that final shot, Bill and Mae have so little that they can actually count on for the future. But perhaps that is all we ever really have.

  1. “Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution”, Wikipedia, (20 April 2015).
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968, (1968), E. P. Dutton, New York, p. 76.

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