The Docks of New York (1928)

‘That same year, 1928, Sternberg turned out the pictorially remarkable Docks of New York, which earned the praise of George Bernard Shaw. In it George Bancroft (who had become a favorite actor of Sternberg since Underworld, appearing in four of his films) moved with the grace of a ballet dancer, despite his heavy bulk, so integrated were his movements. Out of an imagination and sense of fantasy as vivid and evocative as Thomas Burke’s evocations of London’s Soho and Whitechapel in Limehouse Nights (and in an instinctive echo of the ancient Greeks who ordained that “every man owes five days a year to Dionysus”?), Sternberg conjured up a section of the Hoboken waterfront in the studio, complete with dirty tramp steamer tied up to the dock, its smoke-filled saloons with their wooden staircases outside leading to the upstairs rooms of the cheap prostitutes, the steaming boiler-room in the ship’s hold with the glistening bodies of the stokers manning the fire-ovens, the sweating faces of those laboring in front of red-hot coal and looking forward to shore leave, which meant cold beer and the soft, yielding arms of the saloon girls … all rendered in photography of the richest chiaroscuro.’

–Herman G. Weinberg, Josef von Sternberg (E.P Dutton & Co, 1967)

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‘Except for a fleeting glimpse of the New York skyline and oil slicks on the lapping waters of the bay, The Docks of New York was wholly studio-made. The director felt that only in the studio stages could he control the infinite shades of black-and-white photography, which he had developed by this time to an art in itself. With some of the scenes veiled in artificial mist or harbor fog, the pictorial composition had a dreamlike quality that could not have been obtained in a natural setting under the conditions imposed by the director.’

— Weinberg

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‘George Bancroft is once more Sternberg’s Caliban, but Betty Compson’s fatalistic floozie is more prone to wearing her heart on her sleeve than most Sternbergian heroines. She is vulnerable, wistful, yet fully committed in a way Sylvia Sidney will be later in An American Tragedy. The plot is something of a switch for Sternberg in that it is the man who deludes the woman, first with a mock wedding and then with a cynical honeymoon. The man satisfies his lust, but then surrenders to his conscience.’

–Andrew Sarris, The Films of Josef von Sternberg (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966)

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‘At first glance, Sternberg seems more like Visconti, a prettifier of poverty, except that Sternberg, unlike Visconti, never claims to be realistic. His photography, full of light and shadow, is designed to give visual expression more to feelings than to facts. He is not concerned with social conditions on the docks of New York, nor with the class consciousness of his characters. What interests him is the emotional force which impels a man to drag a woman across a crowded room to satisfy his desires, and that emotional force can be expressed in one manner alone: camera movement. Sternberg wants to drag us along with Miss Compson, and he succeeds, and then he shows us Miss Compson overcoming all this brute force, and we realize that we are back in the realm of Sternberg’s feminine mystique. With Docks of New York, Sternberg takes his place with D.W. Griffith and Frank Borzage as one of Hollywood’s least condescending chroniclers of little people with big emotions. Sternberg stands alone, however, for his unique virtuousness untainted by sanctimoniousness.’

–Sarris

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‘Von Sternberg’s talent at conveying the physical attractiveness of women was to reach its height with the sound films of Marlene Dietrich. Docks of New York, however, was a remarkably sensuous picture. Two well-contrasted players, Betty Compson and Olga Baclanova, gave electric performances in a highly charged atmosphere, an atmosphere created almost entirely by light.’

–Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By … (University of California Press, 1968)

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‘ … “Half Hogarth, half Mack Sennett,” wrote Thomas Quinn Curtiss of it in the Paris Tribune many years afterwards, after a showing at the Cinémathèque Française. “A film of pictorial brilliance, telling atmosphere, and some wonderful low humor.” … As for its technique, a critic of the time wrote: “Let us not forget that the silent film is actually being stifled by its own perfection. Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and Sternberg’s Docks of New York prove this indubitably. What remains to be done? Repeat the technical triumphs, the wonderful lighting, the overwhelming settings, with actors denuded of staginess as were those who took part in it? No, we have demonstrably reached the culmination of one form of cinematic expression and if the sound film had not been invented, producers the world over would have been looking for something else…..”‘

— Weinberg

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