Tuesday, June 25, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Docks of New York' (1928)

The Docks of New York

Dir: Josef von Sternberg

Scr: Jules Furthman

Pho: Harold Rosson

Ed: Helen Lewis

Premiere: September 16, 1928

76 min.

A chronicle of the lower depths of society, The Docks of New York was created entirely on a movie set in Hollywood. Despite this limitation, director Josef von Sternberg, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and screenwriter Jules Furthman created an authentic, gritty mise en scene that grounds this tale of love and redemption.

The director was on a roll, already lauded for films such as Underworld (1927), considered the first gangster film, and The Last Command (1928), which won lead actor Emil Jannings an Oscar. Here he stages the abrupt romance between Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a coal-stoker on a ship, and suicidal prostitute Mae (Betty Compson). Bill saves Mae from drowning after she throws herself into the sea. He takes care of her, falls for her, and proposes marriage to her, all in one night.

The wedding is conducted in the raucous atmosphere of The Sandbar, a waterfront dive. Mae gets her wedding ring from the hand of the cynical Lou (Olga Baclanova), another tart who’s sick of her long-absent husband Andy. Bill leaves to rejoin his ship in the morning, but reconsiders, dives off the ship, and swims to shore. He finds his wife in Night Court, charged with stealing the clothes he stole for her from a locked-up shop. Bill steps up and takes the blame, earning him 60 days in jail. Mae promises to wait for him.

Furthman was a master of the screen scenario – he would later be noted for scripts such as those for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and The Big Sleep (1946). He contrasts the budding affection of Bill and Mae with the dead-end disgust of the relationship between Mae and Andy. Everyone treats Bill and Mae’s wedding as a joke; everyone, that is, except Bill and Mae. Even the two of them can only express their feelings roughly, without sentiment. They are linked together by fate, but they are not star-crossed lovers.

Harold Rosson’s cinematography makes the film. He and Sternberg went on an expedition to New York to pick up design ideas, and the result is marvelously conceived and shot settings, from a grimy, hellish stoke-hold to the foggy alleys of the port. Every visual is carefully composed for maximum effect. There are no preachments or messages in the film; the characters simply are what they are – they live out their choices without editorial comment.

In the end, The Docks of New York is a proletarian drama that focuses on fundamental needs and desires in a compelling manner.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Fall of the House of Usher.

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