Who knew that Josef von Sternberg had a heart? His critical reputation—elevated to legendary status thanks to his 1930s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich—was founded on a sensual visual sensibility that, when given free rein, veered into decadent fetishism. When people discuss von Sternberg’s movies, they invariably focus on the mesmerizing imagery, rarely the stories. If the characters are remembered at all, it’s because they are such impossibly gorgeous objects of desire and despair.
The Docks of New York shoots that notion to pieces. Its greatness, like most masterpieces, has much to do with timing and the fortuitous assembly of simpatico collaborators. It is still unquestionably a Josef von Sternberg film, the first in which his prodigious pictorial genius was fully realized. The 34-year-old autocratic auteur—on the verge of losing his cherished career—also learned to downplay the egotistical artist routine and elicit the absolute best his cast and crew had to offer.
Because it was lost for many years, misconceptions about the film have flourished. Docks followed the huge success of Underworld, which von Sternberg had directed the previous year, and many who had never seen Docks assumed it some type of proto-noir crime yarn, in the mold of Underworld and its 1928 follow-up, The Dragnet. But this is no crime thriller, and it’s far from hardboiled noir. The Docks of New York is an elegant and elegiac love story about battered souls at the bottom of the barrel. It’s also the most emotionally affecting film of the director’s exhilarating if erratic career.
Based on the short story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders (author of Wings), The Docks of New York succeeds largely because it is so deceptively simple.
A merchant ship pulls into port, turning a crew of randy “stokers” loose for one night of carousing in the city’s wharf-side dives. Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), the brawniest and most brainless of the lot, comes across the despondent Mae (Betty Compson) as she’s trying to drown herself. He rescues her, touching off a series of events that, over-night, forever changes the lives of several world-weary characters. That’s it.
There are just enough twists in the 76-minute running time to comprise a narrative; the film plays much more like poetry, granting von Sternberg the breathing room to create and explore his own waterfront world, one with no connection to reality, except in the quick and volatile fragments of life he vividly captures. Freed from the dictates of plot, von Sternberg turned his attention to conjuring moments. Many of them are as beautiful as anything in cinema: the raw power of the stokers feeding the ship’s boilers; the fluid grace of the camera gliding through a tavern full of raucous drunks; the luminosity of von Sternberg’s fallen angels, Betty Compson and Olga Baclanova, electrifying this dank demimonde with their louche eroticism; the thrill of a subjective point-of-view shot suddenly stained by tears; the many swift and lyrical dissolves, suggesting an ineffable melancholy for time’s fleeting and fragile nature. Von Sternberg achieves his goal of pure cinema.
He had tremendous help. This was the fourth of eleven collaborations between von Sternberg and screenwriter Jules Furthman, who scripted three of the director’s most celebrated films: Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Blonde Venus (1932), all starring Marlene Dietrich. Working either solo or with his brother Charles, Furthman understood von Sternberg’s strengths as a filmmaker and concocted dynamic premises and bold scenes without cluttering the story with too much action or extraneous information (or later, dialogue).
Equally essential to von Sternberg’s vision in The Docks of New York was cinematographer Harold Rosson. He’d been working as a director of photography since 1915, helping devise some of the technical solutions that transformed static silent cinema into motion pictures. Rosson had worked on von Sternberg’s The Dragnet (1928), and he reveled in the challenges presented by the director’s fresh, innovative ideas. In 1930, Rosson was hired away from Paramount by Louis B. Mayer, who charged him with developing the glossy photographic patina that became MGM’s signature look. Rosson’s high-water mark was his Oscar-winning cinematography for The Wizard of Oz (1939).
The docks so evocatively photographed by Rosson were built in a Paramount studio, under the guidance of art director Hans Dreier, an import from Germany’s Ufa studio and a frequent von Sternberg collaborator. Dreier soon became the head of Paramount’s art department, overseeing production design at the studio for several decades. The “Sandbar” saloon and its ratty overhead cribs, dangling precariously above the waterfront catwalks, evoke, in the words of critic James Card, a “poetic idealization of the kind of place the New York waterfront ought to be but certainly is not. The docks, fog-shrouded at night, and, in daytime, glistening in softened sunlight, are just what one might dream of finding where the big ships come into the great port of New York Harbor.”
The Docks of New York was the third of four von Sternberg films starring George Bancroft. (He was later nominated for Best Actor for 1929’s Thunderbolt.) The actor’s popularity had expanded exponentially following his performance as “Bull Weed” in Underworld, but unfortunately so did his ego; a reputation for unbridled narcissism eventually curtailed his career. In Docks, he is a towering symbol of blithe and brutish male energy, swaggering through the Sandbar like a silent-era Charles Bronson. Von Sternberg brilliantly balances Bancroft’s buffoonish arrogance against Betty Compson’s enigmatic and bruised beauty. It’s no contest.
One can feel the director’s obsession with the feminine mystique blooming every time the camera frames Compson. Although von Sternberg hadn’t met her yet, Dietrich—the myth—was already coming to life in his compositions.
Not to sell Betty Compson short—she is extraordinary. The actress, 31 when she made The Docks of New York, already had an astonishing career behind her, having made hundreds of silent shorts and features (25 films in 1916 alone!). She started her own production company in 1920, choosing scripts and arranging financing.
During the 1920s, Compson became one of the most sought-after actresses in pictures. She made four films in England, including a dual role in the recently rediscovered White Shadows (1924), written and designed by a young Alfred Hitchcock. She was paid top-dollar by Paramount to return to the States, where she made The Enemy Sex, The Female, and The Fast Set (all 1924), establishing her as one of the premier “bad girls” of the era.
Compson showed her independent streak by choosing to work picture to picture rather than signing a long-term contract with Paramount. As a result, she was branded a has-been when she starting working for Poverty Row studios. She couldn’t have cared less, saying in a 1928 interview, “They offered me good money and ‘my girl’ some fascinating situations.”
Compson clearly had a strong sense of her place in silent cinema history, even as she was creating it. While making The Barker (for which she later received a Best Actress nomination), Compson explained, “My wickedness has kept me going. I wouldn’t have lasted more than five years, possibly not that long, as an ingénue. Yet you cannot call ‘my girl’ a stereotyped vamp.”
Clearly, Betty Compson had found her perfect director in Josef von Sternberg. She is the spiritual and sensual soul of his first bona fide masterpiece, The Docks of New York.
A writer and cinema historian, Eddie Muller is the author of three acclaimed books on film noir, as well as the president of the Film Noir Foundation and producer-host of its annual film festival, Noir City.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Donald Sosin