Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Docks of New York
Moody, rowdy, and sensuous, Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York is a beautiful work of romantic expressionist cinema. Set on the docks on a one-night shore leave, the film is drenched in atmosphere. The bulk of the film takes place in a wharf tavern, crowded to the rafters with drunken revelers: sailors and stokers on leave, hard-partying women and prostitutes, drunks and tramps. Around the bar, the docks themselves are limited to a few minimalist planks of wood and a whole lot of fog, a thick soup hanging over the wharf, the water a dense black shimmering just below. It's a constrained and claustrophobic film, confined to these few minimally defined areas, essentially a rough sketch that evokes a mood. It's a place populated with rough men and easy women, all of them drifting rather aimlessly through life, desperate to grasp a few moments of pleasure before the next ship sails, before morning comes and they inevitably forget everything that happened the night before.
Bill (George Bancroft) is a stoker, and the film opens in a ship's hold, where Bill and the other men are streaked in grease and ash, their faces smeared with black, sweating and laboring hard in the heat. Bill's a hard, crude man, pushing around the wharf bar, always looking for a fight, pouring barrels of alcohol down his throat. He's somehow, subtly, changed when he rescues a desperate, lonely woman named Mae (Betty Compson) from the harbor after she's jumped in, trying to kill herself. Bill carries her to safety, a dark silhouette in the fog with her limp body in his arms, and when she wakes up, they develop a hesitant, charmingly unsentimental mutual attraction as these two hard-edged people trade sly banter. Over the course of a riotous night at the bar, Bill impetuously proposes to Mae, and they're married in an informal ceremony with the bar patrons cheering and shouting throughout — one of the remarkable things about von Sternberg's bar scenes is that his mise en scène is so perfect that it's easy to forget that there's no sound, that one can't actually hear the clamor that's so vividly conveyed through the silent images. There are few silent films that seem so noisy.
Von Sternberg parallels the developing relationship between Bill and Mae with the marriage of Bill's shipmate Andy (Mitchell Lewis) and his wife (Olga Baclanova). Andy's a man very much like Bill; his mannerisms are the same, he has the same crude, violent way of moving about a room by pushing everyone bodily out of his way. He's married but obviously doesn't see his wife very much. When he runs into her by chance in the bar at the beginning of the film, she's dancing with and passionately kissing another man. This unhappy couple looks at one another with nothing but resentment and contempt, their hatred of one another simmering behind every glance. They're obviously one vision of a possible future for Bill and Mae, a future that's very easy to imagine because the two couples mirror each other so perfectly: the actors are even the same types, with Bill a slightly younger echo of Andy and Mae a younger, less worn-out echo of Andy's wife.
It's thus no surprise when Bill wakes up the next morning and barely remembers his wedding or his grand promises from the night before; in one chilling shot, he throws a bill down on the dresser after getting out of bed, thinks about it a moment, and drops another bill, as though he's decided that his wife at least deserves a little extra payment for his night of pleasure. It takes a long time for Bill to realize that this night wasn't so transitory after all, as this solidly unsentimental man keeps getting drawn back into Mae's orbit, for the first time finding it difficult to leave shore. For such a gritty, rowdy movie, there's a real vein of romanticism here, much of it expressed through von Sternberg's gorgeously moody dockside imagery. Bill and Mae's wedding night is capped off with a phenomenal scene of the newlyweds pausing by a railing, looking out into the fog, with Bill wrapping his coat around his bride and placing his cap on her head at a jaunty angle, as she looks up at him with those big eyes and that wry smile. It's an intoxicating moment, sweet and sad, and it only makes the subsequent scenes of an oblivious Bill waking up the next morning even more heartbreaking.
Mae is such a sweet, sad character in general, and von Sternberg's camera seems to fall in love with her long before Bill belatedly realizes that he'd like to stay with her after all. She looks up at the camera with wide eyes, the whites of her eyes shining, her mouth twisted into a sad smile that conveys the depth of her tragic life experiences. She's wise to the ways of the world, and a part of her never really expects Bill to stick around, but a much more tragic part of her hopes that he will, and it's this that comes out when, as she sews Bill's jacket, a cigarette dangling between her lips, a few crystalline tears drip down her cheeks. Von Sternberg's portrayal of her is boldly sexual and sensual — in one scene, she pulls on her dress, her long bare back to the camera as she stretches her arms up over her head. She's so perfectly comfortable in her own skin, like everyone here: the bar scenes especially are models of languid, casual posing, bodies stretched out and leaning against the railings of the bar. One of the reasons this film feels so casually realistic despite its chiaroscuro stylization is the sublimity of the body language throughout, the way every character's pose, particularly Bill's, seems to suggest imminent violence.
This is a beautiful, bittersweet film with a great deal of poetically expressed emotion in its tender depiction of a sad romance and its foggy images of the docks. Silhouettes fade in and out of the fog, the parties last all night, and in the mornings, when the alcohol has been exhausted and everyone's waking up half-naked and alone, the regrets and the sadness only return, even more overwhelming than before. If occasionally, and maybe temporarily, there's a happy ending, it's only an exception.