Film: The Docks of New York
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.
I’ve made it a point over the last few months to really try to get through the first 100 films on The List for a few reasons. Part of this is because older films require a particular mindset to watch, and this is especially true of silent films. The main reason, though, is that these films are where film history started and became something to pay attention to. What happens in films today started with the silents, and many a modern film owes a debt to these first forays into the art of filmmaking. Knowing where things came from gives me a particular perspective on current movies. The Docks of New York is the next to last silent I have to watch, at least until The Artist makes the list in the upcoming edition.
In many ways, this is an eye-opening film in terms of its subject matter. We have a stoker, a guy who shovels coal into the engines of a ship, named Bill (George Bancroft) who has just pulled into port. Almost immediately, he dives into the water of the harbor to save Mae (Betty Compson), who has tried to kill herself. Mae is a prostitute minus the heart of gold, and attempted suicide because she was at the very end of her rope—no money, no clothes, no prospects.
While she is world-weary and tough, she and Bill make a sort of connection, and after a night together decide to be as married as they can be without a license or certificate. What he doesn’t tell her is that he has to ship out the next day, because the ship is pulling out again. And it’s on this fact that the plot turns. Mae feels abandoned with Bill’s departure as might well be expected. When a co-worker who hates Bill moves in on Mae, things get tense and then get violent, and Bill’s reaction here is what ultimately makes the last part of the film work.
The plot is a bit melodramatic and simple, but that’s really okay. A big part of this is the quality of the acting. There’s a bit of the sort of broad acting that always happens in silent films to compensate for the lack of actual dialogue, but less so here than in other films. There’s a subtlety to many of the performances, particularly that of Betty Compson. Early in the film, for instance, after she’s been rescued and taken care of, she sits in bed smoking, and she gives off the look and appearance of a woman so tired of life, so weary of her own existence, that no or title cards are needed to demonstrate exactly how she feels about being rescued. For Bancroft’s part, Bill is all about the physical. He gets in plenty of fights throughout the film, and does what he can to impress Mae with the size of his biceps.
Another selling point here is just how seedy this film is. I have no way to be sure, of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I were told that The Docks of New York was one of the films cited in the eventual creation of the Hays Code. The bar in which much of the action takes place is filled with drunken derelicts, the women are floozies and the men are looking for a quick thrill. It’s sex and booze and infidelity and sinful behavior every moment here, which is somewhat in line with how we might think of the ‘20s as an era, but not how we think of the pure and wholesome movies of the time. The Docks of New York is anything but pure and wholesome. It’s tone is far more in line with modern films in that respect. This is not a film that could have been made twenty years later, but could be made today.
All of this is fine, and with the exception of the performances, doesn’t make the film specifically worth watching. What does is the overall look of the film. The camerawork here is truly amazing, and the film is crisp and beautiful to see. Joseph von Sternberg gives many of his shots a depth that shows the power of the medium and the level of sophistication that had been reached even in these early days. It’s one of the best looking films from its decade, which is saying something.
This is a tough film not to like start to finish. In many ways, the next few years of film with the advent of talkies are a little disappointing, because so much was focused on the novelty of sound that much of what was possible in film was lost. Yes, the look and feel and overall effect of this film are that good.
Why to watch The Docks of New York: It’s a film that truly epitomizes the power of silent film as a storytelling medium.
Why not to watch: You have a hang-up about silent film.