Thursday, April 5, 2012

Unsafe Harbor

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.


  1. von Sternberg knew how to make films. The cinematography, especially the shots on the foggy docks, is excellent.

  2. What startled me more than anything is the depth of focus in many of the shots. It's clear and gorgeous all the way back. The opening shots of the interior of the ship are fantastic as well.

  3. I watched this recently and I too was surprised by the style. I've seen a handful of silent films that feel ahead of their time. This is one of them. It feels like a precursor to film noir. Also, the acting style is quite modern for the time. Probably the best silent films I've discovered so far this year.

  4. "Precursor to film noir." Yeah, I can see that, and if that proved to be reality at least in terms of appearance, I can't say that I'd be shocked.

  5. I just saw The Docks of New York on YouTube and I was very impressed. I've been wanting to see this for a while, since long before I ever heard of the 1001 list. I thought I'd seen all the essential silent films but I keep finding more great ones. In the last year or so, I've seen The Phantom Carriage, The Great White Silence, the 1921 version of Hamlet, Nanook of the North, Laugh Clown Laugh, The Show, The Scarlet Letter, Where East Is East, The Kid Brother, Wild Orchids, Storm over Asia and quite a few others.

    And now The Docks of New York.

    Even though it was on YouTube, I watched it in one sitting. It's rare for me to watch a whole movie on a laptop without stopping every 30 minutes or so. I was that focused. It probably helped a lot that it was cold and windy and rainy outside, setting a perfect mood for The Docks of New York.

    I didn't know Olga Baclanova was in it! So nice to see her. She's most famous as the scheming trapeze artist who marries the midget Hans for his money in Freaks. I see her in random movies every once in a while, and she's always great! In The Docks of New York, there's a scene in the saloon where she's drunk and laughing and I can hear her even though it's a silent film just because I've heard her drunken laugh in Freaks so many times.

    Does Olga always try to kill her husband in every movie or does it just seem like it?

    Betty Compson is amazing. She's so depressed and dejected so much of time, but the way her face lights up at the smallest reason for hope - it's magical.

    I also liked the scene where she blows out the match because "three on a match" is bad luck. (Is it true that this is a fake superstition created by match manufacturers? I saw the story that it's fake in a Michael Curtiz movie "Three on a Match" and if you can't trust the director of Casablanca, who can you trust?)

    One of the most pleasant experiences I have had with one of the early movies on the list for quite a while, probably since I saw The Great White Silence. I may put this on on the list of silent movies to recommend to people who have never seen a silent movie.

    1. The Great White Silence is pretty special. If you're still looking for great silents and haven't yet seen The Adventures of Prince Achmed, you need to track that down next. I'm guessing you have, though.

      It's the seediness of this that really impresses me, though. We don't tend to think of films from this era being gritty and socially ugly (or at least I don't), and Docks of New York doesn't give us glitz and glamor.

      From what I know of the "three on a match" thing, it came from World War I. Lighting two smokes on a match didn't cause problems, but a third allowed someone in an opposing trench enough time to spot someone, take aim, and fire. However, there doesn't appear to be any corroboration for this. Don't know where it came from, and since I'm not superstitious or a smoker, it doesn't really bother me. Here, it's a nice bit of characterization slipped in pretty seamlessly.

  6. I've seen Prince Achmed and, yes, it's another great one. At this point, there's only two silent films on the 1001 List that I haven't seen. The Wheel is on YouTube and I'm (still) planning on watching it soon, probably over a whole weekend in 30-minute segments.

    The other film is Napoleon, which I've actually seen parts of. I saw the first hour or so on A&E in the 1990s and then went to bed because it was so late. I woke up a few hours later and couldn't go back to sleep so I watched the last hour. It's pretty impressive. I wish I had recorded it but I didn't know 20 years would pass and I still haven't had an opportunity to see it.

    Is La Chienne a silent film? I haven't seen that either and it's not on YouTube.

    I highly recommend Three on a Match. Superb early 1930s storytelling. Joan Blondell is great. Bette Davis is pretty good but she's not in it as much as the others. If you don't know who Ann Dvorak is, you'll know after seeing this movie. Also, Humphrey Bogart's first time playing a gangster. He's only in it for a few minutes but you can see why he was typecast so quickly.

    1. Napoleon is pretty impressive. It's long, but it's really worth your time. As I recall, , La Chienne is a touch over an hour, and it's pretty good, too.