Director: Josef von Sternberg
Genre(s): Drama, Romance
Runtime: 76 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
The era of silent cinema was nearing its end in 1928, but there were still several good movies left to be released without sound. One of them was The Docks of New York, directed by Josef von Sternberg. In this silent melodrama, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a coal-stoker for a barge docked in New York City, rescues a suicidal woman, Mae (Betty Compson), who jumped off a pier into the harbor. The blurb on Rotten Tomatoes from critic Matthew Lucas says that this picture is about “the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.” I think that that sums up the feature pretty well.
The most striking aspect of The Docks of New York is its visual style. The proto-noirish cinematography is the highlight of the movie, being some of the very best of the silent era. The film dives into the grimy world of coal-shoveling onboard a seafaring barge on two occasions, and these sequences are pretty memorable. It should also noted that this flick is only 76 minutes long, so that’s a plus.
The romantic story at the core of The Docks of New York isn’t really that special, but it’s engaging enough to work. After watching, it may seem like a fairly thin premise for a motion picture, but, as I stated earlier, the whole thing’s under an hour-and-a-half, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Most of the characters are well-defined, but, considering how small the cast list is, that’s something they shouldn’t mess up.
The camerawork and seedy, gritty atmosphere of this flick are its big assets. The plot is simple and straightforward, but that’s not an issue. Fans of silent romance movies will love the Hell out of it, but I’d recommend it to anybody who wants to see what silent films were doing when they were about to be phased out by talkies. It really shows how far the art form had come since, say, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
My rating is 7 outta 10.