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Review: The Docks of New York (1928)

Josef von Sternberg once jokingly proclaimed that his films should be viewed upside down to better appreciate the play of light and shade, which the director regarded as the dominant components of his film. As a consummate aesthetician, Sternberg was willing to sacrifice the care for scripts and storyline to that of pictorial logic, or, with Marlene Dietrich for example, who was the outsize star of his seven films, to a more pressing need to accentuate the lustrous appeal of the actors. For wordless visual has a story of its own, which frequently departs from, or contradicts, the story it is supposed to supplement. With silent films, the visual assumes a preponderant role in storytelling, though words, in the abstract form of ideas, or scraps of disparate thoughts, are the real driver behind the images.

Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928) nonetheless offers a rare instance in which two stories, sometimes deceptively overlaid, are told respectively by the visual and the words, seemingly without the knowledge of the director. It is known that each shot of Sternberg’s film can stand on its own as an exquisite still photograph. If there was a photographer whose style Sternberg may be emulating, the fog-girt and seedy locale of Docks confers on the film a crudeness that is not without its peculiar charm – much like the photographs of Brassai, those images, coloured by the story they tell, are a blend of hard realism and sexual mystique. 

Another key to the appeal of the film’s cinematography is its emphasis on a sense of equilibrium set off by the play of contrasts: brawny hero and petite heroine, he toiling as a ship stoker all his life and she attempting to end her miserable life as a prostitute, their love is kindled and nurtured in a dingy room, and their faux marriage witnessed by a crowd of roisterers in a tavern. If it seems as though the writer jibs at embellishing the love story with any depth or moral sublimation, the visual suggests otherwise: the pair are joined with an aura of intimacy that is only made pronounced when their space is trespassed by intruders; there is something tender and devastating, and very well amounting to love, with two complete strangers brought together by fate, but struggle to move forward, or to turn back, from their distrust of fate.

Unlike Sternberg’s more star-centred extravaganza, The Docks of New York shifts its focus away from the actors and highlights instead the resonance of a simple narrative effected by its deft handle of mise-en-scene. But since the visual has a trick of telling its own story, there are moments when the actors, their faces like inscrutable artworks necessarily subjecting to various interpretations, seem to be implying something unexpected. One of those moments is the final sequence: before the hero is being led away to serve a 60-day sentence for theft, the heroine promises that she will “wait forever” for him. Her face after the intertitle is grimaced by a smile of cynicism and resignation, and there is a hint of weariness in her welled-up eyes. We wonder: will she really wait forever for him?


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