The phrase ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ succinctly characterises film in the first quarter of the 20th century. A combination of ingenuity and requirement to tell better stories founded techniques we witness every time we enter the cinema. However, not every film can invent or reinvent rules. Instead, some pictures are exemplary examples of cinema’s ability within a current structure. The Docks of New York is one of these. It may not add anything new to the filmic vocabulary, but it speaks eloquently.
The blossoming romance between a brutish stoker on shore leave and a beautiful woman attempting suicide reflects darkly in Sternberg’s exquisite cinematography of fog choked dockyards, idiosyncratic angles through broken windows, deep focus penetrating deeper shadows and the oppressive darkness hanging over drunkards.
The pervasive atmosphere sweeping through The Docks of New York is unmistakably a precursor to noir pictures that would sweep Hollywood as an exodus of European directors flooded the industry. Much of the genre’s beloved style is present here long before Bogart tangled in a web of intrigue on the trail of the Maltese Falcon. Characters billow smoke, drink obsessively and brawl in a bleak microcosm before murder punctuates the finale.
The very constitution of the characters are prototypes of hardboiled icons. Leather jacketed Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) swaggers confidently and drains entire kegs of beer, delivering a juggernaut of a shove or a knockout punch to those in his way. Mae (Betty Compson) sets the mould of a femme fatale in Bill’s life, but is not a dangerous temptress like the ruthless Phyllis Dietrichson, but rather a cynic warped on by life.
Sternberg is quoted as saying ‘I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented’. At the point this quote was dictated, the director still operated in a visual epoch, albeit a rapidly closing one, where image was king. However, if Sternberg is true to his word, the empathy and engagement with Bancroft and Compson is a testament to their acting abilities and a stark difference to the noir anti-heroes we are accustomed to.
Compson’s facade is street tough and sexy, but Mae radiates a bittersweetness of an innocence suffering at the hands of her past. Roberts keeps everybody at punching distance, but beneath an indestructible exterior is a man with a heart. In one scene, he breaks into a store to steal opulent clothes for her, attempting tenderness in his own brutish style. The romance between the two is atypical. No rose tinted glasses view the stark black and white waterfront, yet there is a more important quote which highlights the essence of The Docks of New York.
‘Shadow is mystery and light is clarity. Shadow conceals – light reveals. To know what to reveal and what to conceal and in what degrees to do this is all there is to art’. Sternberg address more than just cinematography, whether consciously or not. The real mysterious shadow is wondering how such differing personalities could love one another in an inauspicious environment. The revealing light is the small tendernesses illuminating the answer. Take the marriage scene, it is performed in the middle of a rowdy pub surrounded by drunkards and conducted on a whim. It is by no means perfect and initiated in fun, but the barely legal arrangement secretly holds something of hope.
The Docks of New York does not add anything particularly new to the vocabulary of film, but it is a sumptuously photographed piece moving with technical perfection of silent cinema’s apex. It is also the beginning of a great director’s most triumphant period. 1927 demonstrated his abilities with gangster hit Underworld, but 1928 yielded bothThe Last Command and this picture and ushered Sternberg inexorably to his directorial landmark The Blue Angel.
Bill is torn between his best friend who wants to leave for the ship, and his new wife Mae whom he has feelings for but little intention of obeying vows. In a small struggle, Bill’s pocket rips which Mae promises to fix immediately. Again and again Mae fails to thread the needle until it is revealed through a point of view shot that her eyes are blurred from welling tears.