The Docks of New York Reviews
Much of George Bancroft's performance as Bill Roberts is spent strutting and posing with a masculine air that borders on satire, and the plot of the film is victim to silent film's inability to express full character interaction: if this is a love story, it's a love that the audience must endow with its own background and motivations.
However, the film is a technical achievement. The cinematography is beautiful, and while Bill is a tough guy to like, there's enough compassion in him that we can find ourselves siding with him. This is a seedy world, and director Joseph von Sternberg presents it in all its bleak charm. There aren't many good guys, so von Sternberg makes the bad guys all themore interesting.
Overall, this is a solid and remarkable film but not without its flaws.
The story, set in a dockside slum in New York, follows a blue-collar sailor (George Bancroft) who, on shore after docking from his latest job, saves a prostitute who tries to drown herself (Betty Compson). After she recovers, the pair impulsively decide to get married right there in the seedy bar where most of the movie is set. Melodrama ensues.
Josef Von Sternberg's command of camera movement and mise-en-scene are stunning in this movie. It's an incredibly atmospheric work - everything from the decor to the lighting and smoke works to make you feel as if you were standing in the middle of this world. There are a few scenes where we see the characters in front of us, but can see a great deal of action unfolding behind the camera in the mirror above the characters. It's not necessary for the story, but realizing that you're watching things unfold both in front of and behind the camera provides the movie with a more thorough sense of immersion than even today's 3-D movies can provide. The movie uses every trick in the silent-cinema book to get you involved in its story and its world, and the effort pays off. This is one of the greatest unsung movies of the silent era.
"The Docks of New York" is an engrossing and lively film about people in the lowest rungs of life who are not so much given a reprieve, but just the barest glimmer of hope. At the start, Mae has given up on any possibilties for her future while Bill takes advantage of whatever fun he can find for himself, when he is not at his grueling job, to enjoy himself and forget everything else. All of which is set in a close knit community of people who look out for each other when they have nothing else.