(1928)4Bruce EderThe year 1928 was arguably the greatest in the career of Josef Von Sternberg, who released four unabashed, uncontested classics in that 12 month period. And The Docks Of New York is not only considered by many to be the best of those four -- which also included The Wedding March and The Last Command -- but arguably the best picture he ever made. The director himself is at his visual best, not only in his storytelling but the atmosphere -- one quickly forgets that this is a stage 5000 miles from the real docks of New York -- and the characters. George Bancroft is near top form as the rough, tough stoker Bill Roberts, whose two-fisted approach to life and love is changed when he rescues a girl, Sadie (Betty Compson), from a suicide attempt, and impulsively marries her, knowing that he's only in port of one night. But that night is going to change the lives not only of Bill and Sadie, but a lot of the people around them. Von Sternberg manages the neat trick of never losing sight of the setting as the real "star" of the movie, all the while keeping his characters -- especially Bill -- in center stage. The camera movement, the framing of the shots, and the cutting are among the most graceful that you'll find in the late silent era, and all as sophisticated as the story and setting are rough-hewn and gritty. And the performances, starting with Bancroft's bold, swaggering laborer and Compson's slightly unhinged but beguiling heroine, are all worth seeing on their own terms -- and viewers who only know Bancroft from his sound films, as a somewhat older leading man, may well be amazed and impressed by the swaggering screen magnetism that he projects here. The movie's reputation has justifiably held up for almost a century, and as late as 2010 The Docks Of New York could still sell out a theatrical showing in New York on less than a day's notice.
The smokily erotic ambience of Josef Von Sternberg's silent Docks of New York is best appreciated on a big theatrical screen--but only if the available print is at the very least second-generation. George Bancroft plays a two-fisted ship's stoker on shore leave. He saves Betty Compson from committing suicide; though the girl displays little gratitude, the inebriated Bancroft impulsively marries her. After he sobers up, Bancroft is prepared to set sail and leave his new wife waiting for him...perhaps forever. The story is secondary to the virtuosity of the direction and camerawork (one scene is framed in the eye of a needle!) Considered by many to be Von Sternberg's greatest film, Docks of New York is a prime example of the silent cinema at its zenith.