Okay, so I’m about 12 films behind, which means that I’m either going to start cramming a bunch in, or rambling more than I normally do. Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York deserves its own post.
Von Sternberg is probably best known for his films with Marlene Dietrich – The Scarlet Empress, The Blue Angel, etc. While some of his earlier plots aren’t always great, the atmosphere and camera is really phenomenal, particularly for its time.
So the “first” sound film is 1927’s The Jazz Singer, yet 1928’s The Docks of New York is still presented in intertitles. Tough-guy George Bancroft plays Bill Roberts, a steam engine stoker. Betty Compson plays Mae, a wayward – beautiful – woman, who attempts to kill herself by jumping into the ocean. While the script should be at least commended for its portrayal of lower-class relations, and while some scenes are particularly funny, including a marriage in a bar, most of it is pretty common machismo.
Von Sternberg’s camera is another thing altogether. Sometimes roving, sometimes spying at a canted angle, sometimes perfectly static, the famous director shows off his versatility here. The cinematography by Harold Rosson contributes immensely: everything is shrouded in a deep fog. Wide-shots in deep focus seem immediately more enigmatic than the subject matter ought to be, though this disconnect adds to the overall with its air of sensuality and brooding.
A few shots really stand out: when Mae attempts suicide von Sternberg focuses his camera on the water. We see her in reflection and then she jumps over the camera. Ripples trickle into frame, indicating the splash. This is also one of the few times I’ve appreciated “mickey-mousing” music. That is, where the music directly mimics, and sometimes comments on, the action. It works here in that the accompanying notes lend a fantastical element. The whole shot is, in fact, fantastical, and points to the fairytale ending that will eventually occur. It’s subtle foreshadowing, but the sudden move from gritty boiler-room shots to this one screams for interpretation.
Another great one is more blocking-oriented: Roberts is blocked on his way to the bar. As he tries to go around the obstacle (a drunken man) the man leans back in his chair. Roberts changes his path and tries the other side of the man, who leans forward to put his beer down. Roberts again changes, but now the man leans back to drink. It’s simple, but it’s also funny and logical. The blocking feels natural – the man’s movements don’t seem to be there only to block Roberts, but because this is actually what he would do. A great example of keeping things believable, and using simple character movement to comedic effect. It’s like naive slapstick.
There are some other ingenious moments that I’ll mention in passing: Mae is overwhelmed with emotion while knitting (who wouldn’t cry at a good bit of needle work?). Von Sternberg cuts to her POV of the needle, which is out of focus. It’s her tears blocking the frame. Great stuff.
A wide-shot of the bar and apartment is composed counter to his other deep-focus exteriors. It’s very flat and wide. Almost Tati-like (or Wes Anderson, if you prefer…though you shouldn’t). By flattening this shot/space, von Sternberg deemphasizes its surroundings and also makes it appear theatrical…which it is in its people going in and out of doors and up and down stairs. It’s another nice transition moment (ala the suicide attempt), where von Sternberg just slightly alters his form as we move to a new location or a new act.