The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
The story involves an incredibly strong ship stoker named Bill (George Bancroft) and the beautiful prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson), whom he saves from drowning. She was attempting suicide as she had no money, almost no clothes and felt remorse about her life up to then. He steals some clothes for her and invites her out for a "good night".
One thing that silent films had was that they were simpler in their plot and they never needed too many twists to get to the point. It was also humanly centered as the human sentiments and emotions were played in a more theatrical way that the cards didn’t needed to be too long or even needed.
The story of The Docks of New York is simple and easily has been remade hundreds of times. A group of men are in town for one night and they want to get drunk and get women. We follow Bill who saves a beautiful blond from suicide and he proposes that they have a good night together.
As for many films from director Josef von Sternberg, it is not the originality of the story but the telling of it and his visual signature that makes The Docks of New York standout from the lot. Interestingly enough, von Sternberg often has sophisticated love stories of honor and pride. However, Mae a prostitute and Bill a ship stoker are common women and men. They are like the poor lovers who represent the majority of the people, ordinary men and women that work many hours a day and that want to get themselves think about something else before going back to work the next day. It is also the impossible love affair that von Sternberg carried in most of his pictures.
His mise en scène reflects the world of those workers, it is foggy, dirty, loud and over charged. However, the camera movements and the usual framing of the director is recognizable amongst his peers. He coats his characters with a gaze of smoke or fog and he represents them in particular poses. He shots Betty Compson almost the same way that he shot Marlene Dietrich in their films together; from head to foot while his actors are in American frames. It is no surprise that Josef von Sternberg is still recognized as one of the most important directors of his time. His silent films are probably even more interesting than his talkies. Because his frames are filled with so much and every image is speaking directly at the viewer.
No wonder that Andrew Sarris ranked Josef von Sterneberg in the Pantheon Directors section of his book American Cinema, he is along F.W. Murnau, Max Ophüls, Jean Renoir, just to name a few one of the most important figures in filmmaking. The Docks of New York represents a crowning achievement that is only shadowed in silent love story by Murnau’s Sunrise.