The Docks of New York (1928):

Josef von Sternberg enjoys a challenge, so he pulls into Borzage's waterfront to suppress and heighten emotionalism with sang-froid deadpans. It opens in the smoky naval bowels, grimy opulence as George Bancroft shovels coal into the steamer's furnace before the heavy anchor hits the water and the fellas are given one night ashore; the outside world smolders no less, and a tracking shot reveals just enough of The Sandbar, the roistering wharf dive, to paint the abstract area where the drama is to unspool. Bancroft downs a barrel of hooch and smashes it against the bar's netting, although his bulk bellies svelte gesture, whether exhaling smoke or, in a sublime von Sternberg joke, calmly removing his jacket before leaping into the sea to fish out a suicidal good-time gal -- "You coulda saved yourself the trouble an' let me die" is sad-eyed Betty Compson's thanks. All you need is a good time, the stoker says, but she has had "too many good times," feeling the weight of the past, as von Sternberg's people so often do; Bancroft's own past is tattooed on his biceps, numbers from a dozen girls, yet the two find enough world-fatigued kinship to tie the knot on the spot. The makeshift wedding is improvised during happy-hour, scored to mechanic piano and jeered by saloon dwellers; dour parson Gustav von Seyffertitz sighs at the degradation of marriage, but to Compson the mock-ceremony precipitates her emotional renewal, even knowing it will last one night only. Morning brings the harsh hangover to the ephemeral high, along with the filmmaker's deterministic irony as grimly lecherous engineer Mitchell Lewis and soulful floozy Olga Baclanova, the couple's mirror reflection, delay Bancroft's departure with a crime of passion. Indeed, passion flows out of every denizen of the lower-depths, just as von Sternberg insists that it be funneled into tabula-rasa posing, the better to validate the feelings underneath -- Bancroft's brawling-shrugging, Baclanova's torso leaning against a table, the blurry POV for Compson as she scrambles to thread a needle. Emotion trumps fate, however, and von Sternberg finally dollies out of the courtroom, a supreme long-shot barren of all but the mulish poesy of the characters. With Clive Cook. Written by Jules Furthman. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home