All Quiet

08.24.10

Josef von Sternberg, The Docks of New York, 1928, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Left: A Girl (Betty Compson). Right: A Girl and The Stoker (Betty Compson and George Bancroft).


AM I LIVING in a dream world if I say that the shadows and fog and gazing faces of The Docks of New York feel realer, more fully realized, more urgently alive with thought and feeling, than most movies aspiring to realism? Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 silent has usually been described as the first full unfurling of his sensuously lit fatalism, the consummate style that leads otherwise rational people to parrot Sternberg’s pronouncements that he was Miss Marlene Dietrich. But it’s rare to find portrayals, in or out of silents, as immediate and finely rendered as the frank desire and force of will embodied by stoker Bill (ex-sailor George Bancroft) or the hard-bitten weariness of waifish barroom beauty Mae (Betty Compson), whom he marries on a one-night shore leave that Sternberg turns into a lifetime.

Docks of New York—set mostly in a bar and flophouse, replete with textured surfaces (cracked walls, strung netting, arcing captain’s wheel)—is in fact a period piece that looks back to an earlier age of the city’s waterfront and dock-wallopers. The Last Command (1928), too, lives mostly in the past—dominated by an hour-long flashback to Imperial Russia that’s twice the length of the story’s crass Hollywood present. The two films are grouped with Sternberg’s mercurial gangster pathbreaker Underworld (1927) in a new suite of restored silents from the Criterion Collection (whose DVD interviews and video essays demonstrate, among other things, the need for a release of his poetic, proto-neorealist 1925 debut feature, The Salvation Hunters). Sternberg was a model of absolute technical mastery—before directing, he supervised an entire film lab. Repeated migratory flights between Old World and New were undergirded by unstinting determination, readable in the American screen dreams and demimondes he wrought with a European sense of exquisite tragic decay, between Frank Borzage and Nicholas Ray.

Before Dietrich’s heavy lids there was Evelyn Brent’s “glum” and “sinister” look, as one early account had it. She’s outfitted in feathers (all over) as mop-haired Bull Weed’s moll in Underworld, drawn too by the street-professor (Clive Brook) her gangsta fella takes under his massive wing. In The Last Command, she’s a revolutionary in furs, in low-cut white, visiting-the-general gown, in slick black flip-collar radical chic (the kind that, briefly, in the future, would connote the future). “Instead of flat lighting, shadows,” explained Sternberg. “In the place of pasty masks, faces in relief.” Was it really this simple: the dazzling-shabby tiger-print blouse of Mae’s self-sacrificing friend in Docks, set off against Bill’s shiny black raincoat that’s so excitingly streaked with light, as if it’s actually visibly landing on him as he swats down a pushy bartender? And throughout and about the docks, seemingly all the steam ever exhaled by all the tugboats and trains in Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921).

Underworld ends with something close to wartime bombardment—Bull versus the world, holed up in his hideout—and The Last Command too explodes with tumult: in the flashback, the psychotic czar-ejecting rabble, and at either end, the brash hustle of a Hollywood studio. Bridging the two is Emil Jannings, as the imperial general turned limelight extra with the role of a lifetime: himself. (The intertitle tends to get laughs: “And so the backwash of a tortured nation had carried still another extra to Hollywood.”) Under the studio cameras, he is triggered by a czarist anthem and a wind machine: He rages forth with the full force of Mother Russia, and collapses—one more perfect moment of performance captured before dying. Pull back camera; roll end logo.

Nicolas Rapold

“3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more details, click here.