I like these gloomy, dark movies in seedy bars with underdog characters. They scream ambience and cinema noir and are in fact a celebrated style in itself, though normally associated with the forties.
In this case we are a lot earlier. “The Docks of New York” is from 1928, but if not for the fact that it is silent it fits perfectly into the noir ambience of that later age. The first 45 minutes take place in the night in and around a seedy bar by the docks and you can almost smell the tar and salt and feel the humidity of the fog. It is a very dense ambience created with light and shadow and an excellent set.
Instead of the derelict detective we have a stoker from a ship in port just this night and the mysterious girl is a suicidal prostitute that the stoker is fishing out of the water. But they are exactly as underbelly of society as any lead in a noir.
The stoker Bill Roberts, played brilliantly by George Bancroft, has the swagger and nonchalance of a veteran at sea. He makes his own decisions and he gets his way and does not whine about it when things go wrong. He come about in the first part of the movie as an irresponsible brute, but shows remarkable empathy and integrity as the story progresses. He may not be likeable but in this seedy environment we root for him from the moment he jumps into the harbor to save Mae (Betty Compson). He takes her to a room on top of the bar under protest from the matron of the place. That just goes to show what a miserable character Mae is. Even in her hour of need the boarding house does not want her in.
Important supporting characters are Andy, officer on Bill’s ship and his superior, and Lou his wife. Andy seeks out the same bar and is surprised to find his wife there. He is obviously a bad card, the notorious sailor scoundrel and she is fed up with him. When Bill brings in Mae Lou quickly takes charge of her obviously feeling a kinship with the girl. She sends Bill down to the bar for a hot drink for the girl and typical for his character he bulldoze his way in in his still wet cloth, shake off all protests, make space at the bar and order a warm toddy.
A relationship takes form between Mae and Bill and they are not trying to kid each other. None of them claim to be proper company but they still reach out for each other, Bill convinced that he needs to show her a good time and make her feel valued if only for a night. She need dry cloth so he takes it upon him to find some. When nobody answers at the harbor pawn shop he simply walks in and finds some cloth for her. How difficult can it be? That there is a price to pay for his actions is not much of a concern for him. That belongs to another day.
To show Mae that she is good enough to marry he decides to marry her here and now, right there in the bar. They even call in a parson to perform the rites. All the while Lou is looking out for her and even offers her her own wedding ring hoping that it will give Mae more luck than it gave her thereby clearly telling her that her own marriage to a sailor was a disaster.
The next morning is a new day. Bill gets up while Mae is still asleep and leaves her a few notes and prepares to depart on the boat. The marriage belongs to yesterday and today is a new day. Andy, the officer, exploits this to find Mae in her room, considering her free game. Mae defends that her husband will protect her, but finding the notes she realizes it was only a dream. Lou has followed her husband to the room and the next thing the police are there, ready to take Mae away for murder. At this point Bill decides to take responsibility after all and comes to her assistance. Also Lou steps forward and claim that she killed her husband, yet we will never know who did it.
Now comes the interesting part. Are they man and wife or where they just pretending? Will Bill leave on that ship and will Mae accept him as a husband? The resolution is high drama and, without being melodramatic, is about fighting your nature, showing some integrity and take a bullet for those you care about.
Despite the lack of kisses and tender words this is a very romantic resolution, when people without illusions about themselves and each other decide to commit themselves.
Josef von Sternberg belonged to the rather large group of German directors who invaded Hollywood in the late twenties and early thirties and brought with them the superior cinematography they had perfected in Germany under the common denominator of German expressionism. This is in my opinion his strongest film in terms of cinematography, though he would later for a short while go back to Germany to make “Der Blaue Engel”, his maybe most famous movie. He seemed to have a weakness for fallen women, typically portrayed by Marlene Dietrich, but here in “The Docks of New York” there is no glamour at all, just grimy, raw humanism.
This is a must see. Silent drama noir reached its peak here.