director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
My second favorite film that I saw this last weekend at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was the second Josef von Sternberg film that I’d seen there in recent years. A couple of years back I’d seen his film Underworld (1927), which I had liked. Both Underworld and The Docks of New York starred George Bancroft, but the real impact of the film, its heart and character arise from its female lead, Betty Compson. Like Underworld, the film was introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, was a much more astounding, moving, and remarkable film.
The film opens in the shadowy depths of a stokehold on a steamship, where the stokers pump in the coal and start planning their night ashore with women and booze. When Bancroft’s big, brawny stoker rescues Compson from a suicidal drowning, carrying her limp form to a soft warm place above a teeming, seething, lusty waterfront beerhall. When she rouses, she regrets having been saved, but Bancroft promises her a world of fun, talking her into joining him for a night out. Bancroft’s character is a brute, barely passable as a gentleman, though he’s certainly refined in contrast to the captain under whom he’s served. Compson is a stark contrast in a sense to the flapper girl of Clara Bow from Mantrap (1926). Compson’s character isn’t much older but is a thousand times more played out and experienced. Beyond world-weary to world-worn.
Filmed entirely on a soundstage, von Sternberg controls the aesthetics of the docks to a dark, dismal place, though a place not without poetry. The image of Compson we first see, is her reflection in the water before her jump, a nameless,faceless female amid the shadows and darkness. The tracking shots entering the beerhall are beautiful and elegant, deftly crafting this contained, imagined world into something concrete and recognizable.
As Muller noted before the film, it’s slim on plot. The couple rush into an impulsive marriage among the booze and boozehounds. The hopes and realities play out against each other, and the tragedies or near tragedies are the stuff of movie magic. There is a poignancy to Compson’s lost soul, as there is to the brutish modicum of a soul beneath the hunk of a man of the stoker. I really enjoyed the film a lot, romantic or anti-romantic as it may be.