A tempest of Murnau, Borzage, and Griffith with its own achingly sensual, mist-shrouded, potently translucent vision of city life and the mystique of human desire, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is one of the pinnacles of American silent drama in the year of its acme. Which was, coincidentally, the year of its sputtering death throes, almost as if the pre-sound era was firing on all cylinders to stave off the phantom of sound, to preserve the crystalline purity of the visual medium and acclimatize viewers to the potency of the screen itself, and, above all, to throw itself the most divine combination going-away party and sarcophagus it could muster from its own hands. If so, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind might be the mortal specter of tenuous life, the skeleton in the casket, and Murnau’s Sunrise could be the grand, angelic denouement, the swooping saving grace to send the silents off to Asgard or some other heavenly resting place after being tempted by fate. I think it fitting that The Docks of New York would only ever take pride of place at silent cinema’s funeral as the drunken after-party, with the blissful ignorance of acceptance slurring around a fear of the future that is still waiting in the wings.
Many of Sternberg’s silent pictures are wayward souls now, possibly never to be seen again after being beleaguered by the perils of excessive deterioration or outright admittance to the lost film club. The most fondly remembered of his silent films, other than our present subject, are the roaring razzmatazz of the proto-gangster barn-burner Underworld and the Griffith-grafted melodrama The Last Command, which envisions hyperbole not as an edict or a ruleset but a well of possibilities. But it is The Docks of New York that caps his silent career and enshrines Sternberg among the realm of the iridescent silent masters, before he would immediately abscond – as rules dictated for everyone except Chaplin, who actually discovered Sternberg in America more or less – to the realm of the sound motion picture with superstar Marlene Dietrich as his guiding light to success.
Steamy but not transparently flaky, and rough-hewn but not a grotto of obvious grime, Sternberg’s aesthetic is a fugitive in the land of silent cinema, neither mimicking the barren drunken punch of the genre films from the time – so breathless they feel almost bracingly, wonderfully incomplete – or the sudsy importance of the more grandiloquent A-pictures. Low-life and high-strung, The Docks of New York is a beguiling mixture of the two, a film with the nervy, hard-living intimacy and the downtrodden, mountainous faces of a territorial slugger of a B-picture and the damn-the-torpedoes mythic grandeur of a more romantic brush with Oscar-seeking greatness.
It’s a little like grease-painted Sunrise, actually, a rougher and tougher take on Murnau’s film of love that is either destined or doomed that introduces us to another variant of the quintessential no-name protagonists (The Stoker (George Bancroft) and The Girl (Betty Compson)) that bequeath the film with an aura of an impossibly true tall tale. More or less a situation as The Stoker saves The Girl from death early on and the two bond in their downtrodden loneliness, The Docks of New York doesn’t trump up its essentialist narrative with the demagoguery of narrative contortion or third-act sudden-onset-villainy. The emotional rollercoaster is inscribed in the filmmaking, not the narrative. Von Sternberg understands that more potent and teasing than any plot twist is a carnivalesque cut from the trenches of urban work to a pirouetting dive-bar that suddenly prods the camera from a reflective composure to a brisk strut and swagger, as though being pulled forth via the magnetic energy of this tentative image of life itself.
The dive bar, a jungle of life where one can drown away your sorrows, deploys a kind of safety from the strenuous unknown of the outside world, with the bar hedonism serving as a more realistically-lit contrast to the pillars and shafts of otherworldly radiance and irradiation that girder the outside realm; in contrast to that external swig of dreams and nightmares, the internal realm is a chance to forget the monstrously hybrid murk and mire of an outside world you can only squint through. But, within the bar, the hyperbolic talkativeness and motion of the people (exaggerated in the silent film style) imparts a rushed sensibility of coerced liveliness, like they are demanding that they subscribe to the party lest the existential anxiety lurking outside creep back in. Fittingly, the perhaps-expected visual splendor and revolutionary girth of the picture is exorcised and kept at bay, shrouded in a subfuscous mist that suggests possibility, potential, and hope clouded in a fear of the unknown. Even the safety and complacency of the drink may not be enough to reconcile the mind that always transports the weight of the outside world with it.
Von Sternberg’s vision of urban squalor is tempestuous and prismatic, never ceding ground to any of the possibilities that lay in wait in the minds of the men and women who are barely clinging to a possibility of life as it is. The outside world might be a well of theoretical success held at a remove or a Byzantine labyrinth of people flailing around, ricocheting into one another with a mercurial abandon in hopes of thriving in the cut-throat back-alleys of the hustle-and-bustle big-time. But, primarily, it’s a nebulous fog that only extends the sentence of these people waiting around in locations that feel palpably disconnected and devoid of logical geometry, like each is a waiting room to heaven or hell but pontificating about which is but a fool’s errand. New York is a remove, a specter behind your neck, a figment of whatever you want it to be, with the terror of the barely-hinted severe, strident, even barbed set-design of, say, German Expressionism, withheld behind the haze so that it is a phantom in your mind rather than a corporeal presence we can reckon with, and thus possibly pacify. If most films implicitly inscribe either heaven or hell in New York, then Docks’ more petrifying vision (visualized by Harold Rosson, later one of the many cinematographers on The Wizard of Oz and Duel in the Sun) is to leave us waiting around, not even gifted with the assurance that the city we suspect we occupy is a real place at all. The equivocal status of the cinematography, as neither completely this or that, is scorchingly true to the complications and conjunctions of life itself, less a demaracted, authoritarian statement about life than a thoughtful, pointedly unsure perusal of it.
Sternberg, along with writer or scenario-suggestion device Jules Furthman, also induce a palpable but unstated, and thus more disarming, irony aimed at the whimsical, quasi-surrealistic human condition – like a man taking his coat off neatly and with judiciousness before recklessly violating the water to save a suicidal girl from its mortality-sucking jaws (the sort of contrast someone like Chaplin might have remembered a few years on with his divine ode to the silent picture, City Lights, which includes a similar sweetness-laced-with-melancholy-barbed-with-smirking-irony near-drowning scene). Even the infrequent intertitles – “After a month in the stoke-hold, I got no sympathy for anybody that wants to quit a swell world like this” – glimmer with a bracing, creeping-up-on-you sadness, aself-awareness about the brittle frailty and brutal irony of the need to commiserate loneliness with others. Moments like these, or visual suggestions like how the water is both a pristine, liquidy portal and a murk-and-mire swamp, ratify the dexterous tonal interplay, the precipice of multiple possible futures, that Sternberg evokes.
Hope flutters in the wings, but there’s no commuted sentence for the characters or us; the future still looms over the edge of the film and the limits of these individuals’ lives. More or less, Sternberg’s gift is simply to give them, and us, someone to share that edge with. His style, a bewildering synthesis of brawny, even hoarse visual congestion and ostensibly low-life charisma set against overflowing passions clanging around in cramped spaces, feels like an A-picture threatening to escape from a B-picture. The Docks of New York, fittingly, courses with a lifeblood that only tearing down that false dichotomy – and introducing innocence to guilt, marrying high-flying eloquence to rough-and-tumble pathos – could produce. As a harmony between styles previously sequestered into categories like “divine” and “unholy” or “moral” and “immoral”, Docks is uniquely acclimatized to the dance of the highs and lows and the fluid overlap of moods and tempos that suggests life itself. As an artwork, it is somewhere between ballet and forest fire.