Review: The Docks Of New York (1928)

I’m beginning to think that German directors absolutely dominated the silent era, except when they’re not actually German, but Austrian!

Titles By: Julian Johnson
Directed By: Joseph von Sternberg

There’s a saying that goes, “you take what you can get in life.” The Docks Of New York is the film version of that statement. The characters found in Joseph von Sternberg’s shadowy New York Bowery have nothing to live for so they grab at whatever they can. They drink more than they probably should. They fall in love quickly and make rash decisions because of said love. The find a friend and do what they must to look out for that friend. If they see something they want they go for it, no matter the cost. The desire of the characters in The Docks Of New York is to break free of their situation in life, but they can’t and thus they take what they can get.

This makes the relationship between Bill Roberts and Mae quite interesting. On the one hand it can be read as a great love story. Two souls connecting amid a sea of depravity and finding a way out through one another. On the other hand it can be read as two people who are more than willing to use the other person as a form of escape. I find myself leaning towards the latter, my pessimistic side reigns supreme I guess. I see the validity in the true love interpretation, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that is an easy way out that Herr von Sternberg wasn’t looking to supply to his audience. The New York that the film presents is tough, from top to bottom the people are tough, and that’s why the decision to stay together makes sense for Bill and Mae. They are latching on to one another because they see a toughness in the other person, a way to continue to survive the world they inhabit.

Herr von Sternberg presents his New York as one of shadows and encroaching darkness. Even in the daylight his camera drifts over the landscape as if waiting for the darkness to come and push the light away. The Docks Of New York is also wonderfully framed. The characters are placed in positions where they drown out the light, and there’s very little light to begin with. There are a couple of scenes where shadows dance across the background, and to me this signified that no matter what course of action the characters undertook the shadowy existence they knew would pull them back. The story in The Docks Of New York may be slight from a strict plot sense, but Herr von Sternberg tells the bulk of the story through the visual style of the film. Mae doesn’t need to tell me she has given up on ever getting out of her situation. The way Herr von Sternberg frames Mae in every scene and lights her tells me that better than any interstitial could have.

I owed a review of The Docks Of New York to Sean Gilman following his winning part of an NFL suicide poll I participated in last year. It took me a long time to get around to watching The Docks Of New York, but it was well worth the wait. I can see the reason for the comparisons to Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, although I would suggest that The Docks Of New York goes for a more straight up noir effect than F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece ever did. Like a lot of great noirs, life is tough in the world of The Docks Of New York. There are no real winners, unless of course you are the lucky person getting to experience Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks Of New York.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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