The Docks of New York (1928) represents the zenith of silent film-making and von Sternberg at his best, I'd often been told. So I was pleased to discover upon my first viewing that, yes, it's freakin' awesome. The directing, performances, photography, lighting and mis-en-scene: awesome.
Betty Compson and George Bancroft play a hooker and sailor (respectively) who meet when he jumps into the river to rescue her after a suicide attempt. A night of drunken flirtation ensues, which culminates in a quickie marriage, followed by a heartbreaking morning ...
What's amazing in this film is the level of ambiguity in the directing and performances. It's an unromantic romance. A girl with a what-the-hell attitude who allows herself to fall into a thoroughly bizarre situation because she just doesn't give a damn, she's completely at the end of her rope anyway. Why not? And yet, she's strangely devoted to him, perhaps out of this same fatalistic sense that there's no real reason not to be. One man is as good as the next, and yet she likes him. So there's Betty.
And then you've got George, who's this odd mix of roughness and tenderness. He stops to save her. motivated by basic human decency, and yet he does it with an air of detachment. Then he sticks around to get drunk and flirt with her, motivated by the fact that he has one night of shore leave and she's kind of cute. The next day he leaves because he's "never missed a boat in all his life."
So what prompts him to jump off the boat and swim back to her? This same sense of "Why the hell not?" It's all sort of bizarre and intangible and unmotivated in this really beautiful way maybe illustrating how all our actions are kind of unfathomable, really. I don't know, at least they are in this world. I can't explain the strangeness, but I think I have an image that could illustrate what I mean. After Betty jumps in the water, George steals her some clothes to wear since her only dress is wet. And what does he get her to clothe and warm her shivering, traumatized body? This:
This. This sexy, slinky, clingy, paper-thin dress. This flesh-colored dress! It's devastating and surreal. In a normal universe, a hero would get his damsel something solid and modest and warm. In this world, he gets her a shimmering, substanceless slip of gossamer.
Hardly a conventional love story. And yet, as a vintage Photoplay review describes, "if you are one of those blessed with an appreciation of the beauty of realism, then this will be more beautiful to you than a story of young love in a garden. It has power and tenderness."