The Docks of New York Review
The Docks of New York is a 1928 silent romance film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring George Bancroft and Betty Compson. It is one of the classics of its time and it surely is a masterpiece.
A ship stoker saves a prostitute from drowning and the two start a romantic relationship. This is a very simplistic plot, but in a good way. I am a big fan of this kind of approach where story is minimal and has not too many subplots, but is propelled by a strong visual artistry, strong dialogue and splendid characterization. And this movie is a great example of that. The plot itself is minimal, but still quite professionally done with a wonderfully simplistic and yet still sophisticated screenplay.
The characters are phenomenal. Bill Roberts may be a familiar character, but he’s still so well developed and inherently likable. He’s also realistic and troublesome, but still sweet and caring. Mae is excellent as well and I really loved her character and you root for her because she is such a wonderful person. The relationship between the two is remarkable and that is the biggest reason why this movie works. A romance has to have a fantastic relationship at its core and this one has that in spades. The supporting characters, although not having too much screen time in an already very short movie, still manage to become memorable because of some strong characterization at display here. Sugar is really good and is great as Bill’s friend and Lou is absolutely magnificent as this strong and capable woman. She is such a progressive character for the period.
The acting propels this movie to some amazing heights. George Bancroft is very good as Bill and he gave such a good performance. Olga Baclanova is quite good as well. But this is Betty Compson’s vehicle as she steals every scene she is in and that I did not expect as I wasn’t even aware of her before watching this movie, but I really admire her work here. She gave such a naturalistic, beautiful performance that is so thankfully devoid of any theatrical aspects that plagued the movies of the time. She gave a grounded performance that made her character all the more real and her facial expressions in particular are beautifully expressive and speak volumes in the more emotional and flirtatious scenes. This is one of the finest performances of the era in my opinion.
The Docks of New York is a visual treat and I would even go so far to call this movie art. Silent films when done with care, attention to detail and vision can be better than any sound film out there and this movie is the best example of that. The language here is magnificent. Having such brilliant performances from its cast with superb facial expressions and being such a visual marvel, the film becomes a work of art that is very poetic at some scenes, most of the time actually. The cinematography here is absolutely gorgeous with some shots being marvelous to behold and some imagery being quite unforgettable. This has to be one of the best looking films of the twenties as it’s always wonderful to look at. The attention to detail is evident and the care that went into this production is also quite evident from beginning to end.
The direction from Josef von Sternberg is extraordinary and this is his best film in my opinion. He has such a strong voice here, but the cinematography is also the key aspect here along with the pacing and the score. The picture is really well paced and although it should have been longer, I still found its running time really well used with not a single wasted scene to be had. The flaw I’ve found here is that the beginning of their relationship is a bit rushed and should have been longer, but that is an expected and small flaw in an otherwise amazing film.
The score’s indescribably beautiful, at least in the one version I’ve seen. It lifts those more dramatic and heartwarming moments to greater heights and is just always so satisfying and wonderfully accompanying the action on screen. I’ve read that some found the ending to be preposterous, but I wholeheartedly disagree as I found the finale to be the most satisfying sequence in the entire movie. When he tells her to wait for him and the camera moves to her face and she smiles in such an innocent, sweet way, my heart just melted how evidently beautiful that was. It’s a subtle, wonderful finale for a subtle, beautiful movie.
The Docks of New York has such a big heart, but is never too maudlin or emotionally manipulative which is great. The emotion here is real and genuine which is so rare and so admirable. The dialogue is also wonderful and the humor is so good with some really funny, charming moments. And the movie is very energetic and playful which I adored. The tone is so well handled as the dramatic elements are never too melodramatic and the humorous moments are never ridiculous. This is overall such a well crafted, immensely enjoyable movie that is also very engaging and just beautiful to watch. It is one of the best silent films I’ve seen and one of the most romantic films period.