The Docks of New York (1928) Poster

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A silent film that you'll forget is silent.
Grapeape-213 February 1999
Long before Renoir or Welles experimented with depth of field, Sternberg was employing it in his silent films, and perhaps most beautifully in The Docks of New York. The mise-en-scene is so incredible in this movie that many critics accuse the movie of being overly concerned with imagery, and less concerned with plot. The plot is simple, yet it allows Sternberg to concentrate on what he appears to be most concerned with--developing character psychology. One is reminded of the rich characters in Greed when watching this film, yet the sense of despair is underplayed in Docks creating a much more subtle film than Stroheim's.

Many critics claim that Docks shows a near-perfect mastery of silent technique. Yet, the film remains somewhat obscure because it was released in 1928, when the novelty of the first "talkies" was overshadowing silent films such as Docks. If you are at all interested in film history or just plain good films see The Docks of New York.
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Another great silent from 1928
rbyers11 August 2004
One of the fascinating things about the movie to me was that, before he fetishized Dietrich, Sternberg's erotic sensibility seems broader. The opening scene of the men in the boiler room of a ship, wiping oil and coal dust from their gleaming skin, is one of the few times that he dwells on the male body that I can recall. And George Bancroft's swaggering, boisterous Bill is the most virile male I've seen in any of Sternberg's movies -- other than Bancroft as Bull Weed in UNDERWORLD from the year before. Of course, once Betty Compson splashes into the story, the camera loves her world-weary, wry beauty, and Sternberg constantly reminds us that she's naked under her clothing. As in his later, sound films, the settings are also sensual and full of complicated textures, reflections, and depth, with some great dockside shots in a foggy night.

The story itself is a fairly simple, but it has a warmth and genuine (or even sentimental) sympathy for love that is perhaps lost in the power struggles of Sternberg's Dietrich films. All four major characters are strongly drawn, rough-hewn, and well-played. Along with Bancroft and Compson, Olga Baclanova (of FREAKS fame) is also especially good as a sailor's bitter, abandoned wife. The dialogue in the intertitles is full of hard-boiled gems, as when the wedding ceremony is rendered, "If any of you eggs know why these heels shouldn't get hitched, speak now or forever after hold your trap!"

Kevin Brownlow says in THE PARADE'S GONE BY that THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is Sternberg's finest film, and it may be so. I love the Dietrich films, and the bizarre SHANGHAI GESTURE, but DOCKS stands out for the sweet grittiness.
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Wonderful, engaging film
filmnutz10 June 2002
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Docks of New York." Betty Compson's portrayal of a disillusioned prostitute is riveting and clearly shows why she appeared in as many silent films as she did. She truly was a great silent star. She is good to look at and I found myself very much caring about what happened to her character. It is no wonder her image appeared on so many postcards and photographs from the 1920s. I think she was a bigger star during the silent era than most people today realize.

George Bancroft swaggers convincingly throughout. His is a strong, no-nonsense presence. Clyde Cook, known mostly for his many silent comedy films, is convincing as Bancroft's apprehensive and harried pal. Mitchell Lewis, as the third engineer who desires Compson, is appropriately menacing. Olga Baclanova, as his estranged wife, is also quite good.

The scenes in the boiler room of the ship well evoke the hazards and hardships of what must have been back-breaking labor.

The tavern scenes are raucous and animated and clearly depict the more tawdry aspects of such places. The juxtaposition of this setting, with its boisterous, cynical patrons and the hopeful act of marriage that takes place there, is masterful.

Favorite scene: On the morning after their "marriage" Compson offers to sew Bancroft's torn shirt pocket before he goes off to sea but can't see to thread the needle through her tears. He threads the needle for her; she then kneels between his legs and sews the pocket. The intimacy of this act, and the emotions it generates in both, is far more powerful than what we imagine took place in their bed the night before.

Great stuff!
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A masterpiece
mik-193 January 2005
Of course, no waterfront in the world was ever as deliciously seedy as set designer Hans Dreier's in this amazingly atmospheric and evocative masterpiece of late silent cinema. The story is rather tawdry, cheapish even, but plots are very rarely the point of a movie anyway, and Josef von Sternberg has made the perfect film out of next to nothing.

'The Docks of New York' is about a rough and ready stoker, Bill (George Bancroft), on leave for the night. He goes to the Sandbar and gets into a brawl with Hymn-Book Harry (the ever sleazy Gustav von Seyffertitz), and on the way back saves a young girl, Mae the tough kookie (Betty Compson) from drowning herself. Slowly they sorta kinda fall in love and he marries her on the spur of the moment, but what will they do the next morning when Bill is supposed to sail off again? The most astonishing thing about 'The Docks of New York' is its subtlety. We have no heroes or simplified villains here, just people who have had a hard time all their lives and are reluctant to be redeemed. The concept of love in this sneering, loud-mouthed environment is completely alien. "I hope you have better luck than me", says Olga Baclanova's character to Mae on her way to the slammer, "but I doubt it". It is Baclanova who says on the subject of decency that she was decent "before I got married".

It goes without saying that the film is acted as naturalistically as anything we see today, that Compson & Bancroft absolutely shine as the unlikely lovers, grittily played and with no sentimentality. The lighting is superb, photography stupendous, direction acute, and the edition you are most likely to see looks fabulous.
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Joseph von Sternberg's greatest film!
Pat-548 October 1998
Intense drama that has a story line so strong that after awhile you forget the film is silent. Performances by George Bancroft and Betty Compson are brilliant. Curious that this film is not better known or praised more by critics. A true example of how artistic silent films became right before the advent of sound.
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Well-Crafted, Well-Acted, Good Atmosphere
Snow Leopard18 August 2004
There are quite a few strengths that make this silent melodrama work so well. It has a well-crafted story that moves at a good pace and efficiently uses each minute of screen time. It is very well-acted, especially by George Bancroft and Betty Compson. Compson's performance, in particular, deserves much more praise and recognition than it has received, either at the time or now. Finally, the dockside atmosphere is interesting and convincing, besides being an integral part of the story.

Bancroft has a role that is particularly well-suited to him, and he does a fine job in the part. Compson has a challenging role, since she must make her character attractive yet lonely and miserable, and somewhat disreputable yet completely sympathetic, for the story to work. She gives an excellent performance in every respect, and Bancroft plays off of her character quite well. There are some fine moments in which their characters' rough edges contend with their own gentler and nobler instincts. Thus the unlikely attachment between the two not only works well, but draws you in and makes you care about them quite a bit.

The supporting cast gives good performances as well, with Olga Baclanova especially good in a role that is essential to the story. Mitchell Lewis is suitably brutish as the heavy, and Clyde Cook is quite believable as Bancroft's nervous pal.

Josef von Sternberg also tied together all of these strengths in an efficient and effective package, making every scene count and making you feel as if you were there on the docks with the characters. It's a fine melodrama by any standard, and is well worth seeing for anyone who enjoys silent movies.
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Impressive acting
Igenlode Wordsmith11 December 2009
For me, this comes a close second to "Underworld" in Sternberg's films: the twists and turns of the melodramatic plot become ultimately a little too much for me to swallow (a twist too far?), and I found some of the camera devices simply distracting, but even so the film is more or less won by virtue of the impressive acting from all concerned. Betty Compson (who was soon to receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her role in the part-talkie "The Barker") stands out as the fragile, cynical girl who has "had too many good times" already but allows herself to believe in the possibility of redemption; Baclanova is memorable as the petty officer's deserted wife, while George Bancroft is a cheerful, callous but not unkindly Colossus of a stoker. The weary, sensitive features of Gustav von Seyffertitz, in a small role as the threadbare Bible-basher who ministers to this godless 'flock', also make a strong impression. The film is almost all atmosphere, but it is atmosphere well-done.
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The power of silent cinema
MissSimonetta17 January 2016
Docks of New York (1928) is a prime example of the power of silent film at its height. After 1928, the medium would be crushed underneath the rise of sound technology, which was a shame considering how technically dazzling and sophisticated they had become by the latter half of the 1920s.

The film is a character study of a rough stoker and a suicidal woman. The two fall in love after he rescues her from an attempt to take her own life, though there is a chance they may be separated by the stoker's aversion to commitment and responsibility. The characters are all flawed, compelling people, each one brought to life with subtle performances from the leading actors. The atmosphere is appropriately seedy and dark, with chiaroscuro lighting and crowded spaces. It's a slow film, one that will not please those who prefer more plot or action, but it is worth your time, showcasing silent cinema at its loftiest heights. It is films like Docks of New York which make one wish the silent era had lingered on a little while longer.
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Love in the old New York.
Boba_Fett11388 November 2007
It was great to see the old New York of the '20's in this movie, only though it's just in a couple of establishment-shots. It still looked so much different of course, with a totally different skyline, without as many and such high skyscrapers as there are this present day.

The build-up of the movie and its drama is done very well. It has a sort of dark and depressing, dirty atmosphere, which suits the movie its time period and themes. The story also all enhances this. I really liked the story, also not in the least that it isn't just another standard written love-story. I also liked how tings came together at the end. The movie really reached a right and satisfying conclusion. The movie however as a whole is a bit too short though perhaps to let all of its drama work out as effective as it perhaps could had. Nevertheless the themes in the movies still work out efficient enough and shows that "The Docks of New York" was a quite edgy and unusual movie for its time.

The movie gets mostly carried by its two main leads, played by George Bancroft and Betty Compson. Both are such compelling characters, greatly and charismatically portrayed by the two main actors, each in their own way. But a complaint would be that's hard at times to always care for the characters. Bill Roberts is one tough hard guy that smacks things around and punches people in the face. And Mae also obviously has some issues and a dark past.

The movie was professionally directed and with some excellent camera-work, that also uses some early moving shots. This also really added up to the movie its quality and atmosphere.

A great unique little film from the silent era!

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Shows love CAN change anything
timmauk16 August 2001
What a good film and what good condition this film is in. The story is simple enough but delivered so well by a great cast.

Seaman(George Bancroft) gets shore leave for the night and goes looking for some fun. He saves a lady(Betty Compson) and is overwhelmed by her. One thing leads to another and he ask her out. From there all kinds of things happen. One of those things is love.

I was very impressed by Bancroft and Compson. They really seemed like they were living their parts rather than acting them out. Betty Compson was such a beautiful woman. That combined with her acting talent, I am surprise that she wasn't a big silent film star. I have never heard of her before.

I would recommend this film to all film lovers, silent and sound.
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"I want steam, not talk!"
Steffi_P7 February 2010
One of the less obvious differences between sound and silent pictures, is that whereas in a sound picture the director will set up a scene, prep the actors and then call action, in a silent the director could (and usually would) continue to direct even while the cameras were rolling. Of course it's hard to tell how much this difference affected the finished product in real terms. However, with a director like Joseph "von" Sternberg, who demanded a complete (and indeed tyrannical) control over every aspect of the image, the ability to carry on shouting at his cast and crew right through the take was probably a considerable bonus in fine-tuning his elaborate visual style.

With Docks of New York being a late silent, it has more or less as much fluidity of movement and camera angle as your average sound flick. However there is an extreme complexity in the movement of a kind that you only really saw in Sternberg's silents. Take for example those lengthy dolly shots through the bar, with extras moving across the shot as the camera goes in or out. Those movements across the screen look haphazard, but they are carefully timed to complement the camera movement and give a rising tide of franticness. To arrange everyone so precisely there must have been almost as much activity behind the camera as in front of it. You could do a shot like that in a talkie, but it would require copious reheasing, and I don't think that's something they tended to bother with in the early sound era, what with the all the other obstacles they had to overcome. It's certainly true that Sternberg used to spend most of his set-up time sorting out the lighting schemes, rather than giving any detailed priming to his cast.

Sternberg's layered patterns of movement not only add to the aesthetic quality of this picture, but they enhance its atmosphere. The barroom scenes in particular have a spectacularly chaotic feel to them. The fact that every edge of the room is filled by a mass of moving bodies makes it impossible to figure out the size and layout of the place. But for all his visual lavishness, Sternberg himself admitted to caring little about stories, and as a result the narrative gets a little lost amidst all the shadows. This is even given the fact that Docks of New York is overburdened by intertitles.

Sternberg had also yet to fully develop his stylised and dappled lighting patterns that can be seen in his talkies. Here that's a good thing, because it means his camera shows the actors up a little better. And there are some fine performances here worth capturing. George Bancroft gives a superbly realist turn, looking every inch the rough but basically good-hearted stoker. Betty Compson is also nicely subtle, in a slow and measured performance with plenty of under-the-surface emoting. An honourable mention should go to Clyde Cook, who plays Bancroft's buddy Steve. Cook was an Australian slapstick comic, once the star of his own shorts but by this time doing supporting work in features. He is perhaps a little too clownish for the sombre tone of Docks of New York, but entertaining to watch and capable of a spot of straight acting when the occasion demands.

The oevre of Herr Sternberg can generally be summed up as pretty to look at but dramatically unengaging. As a silent picture, where the director can put his all into the image without having to worry about the business of dialogue, Docks of New York is just that little bit prettier to look at. And yet as one lacking in a strong narrative drive it is also that little bit more dramatically unengaging. It's a shame, because this is potentially one of the most poignant tales he ever dealt with. Bancroft and Compson recognise this, and play it appropriately, but the director remains a hard-boiled cynic who knows a few camera tricks.
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Wonderful ... wonderful
hotangen19 March 2013
This film is perfect. It's about 2 people meeting, falling into something like love, and deciding to spend their future together. It had a few more subtitles than needed, a common irritant with silents, but some of the dialogue cards actually - surprise - enhanced the viewing experience by highlighting Bill and Mae's basically decent characters.

This is one of the 3 Von Sternberg silents reissued by Criterion. I like 'Underworld' a lot, but I'm head-over-heels with 'Docks', due primarily to George Bancroft. No one else could have played Bill as well. Not Beery, not McLaglen. This is an example of an actor and a role fitting like a glove. And the same goes for Betty Compson playing Mae, a gal who, to put it mildly, is down on her luck. Mutually attracted as they are, but each cautious, they circle around, taking the other's measure. As Mae says, "You ain't so bad, Bill." And she's spot on in summing him up.

Bill is a hard-drinking, brawling big hunk of masculinity who's confident in who he is, his physical strength, and his chosen life. He's a no longer young man who's at peace with himself and his place in the world. He has a work ethic - "I've never missed a ship sailing in my life" - and pride in his job, back-breaking labor that will use him up before he's 40. When Bill says to Mae, "I never done a decent thing in my life", he looks like he means it when he says it, but we know differently.

A few years earlier female hearts beat faster watching Valentino sweep Vilma Banky off her feet. But Valentino, wonderfully watchable as he is, is make believe, whereas Bancroft is the real thing. But how will Bill make a living after giving up his life at sea? That's not in the script, but because we care what happens to these 2, my guess is he and Mae will scrape together a few dollars somehow and open their own bar along the docks of New York.
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Mighty George Bancroft!!!
kidboots9 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Initially it was very easy to forget you were watching a narrative film and to just imagine it was a documentary maker's homage to the seedier docklands of New York. Down in the ship's boiler room - George Bancroft and Clyde Cook didn't seem like actors, they actually looked like stokers, dreaming of going ashore. And the eerie silhouette of the girl on the pier - then the splash!! I really think that "The Docks of New York" is a triumph of von Sternberg's visual artistry. Mists and shadows, especially compelling was the scene when Bancroft carried the bedraggled Compson along the waterfront to her shabby room.

Just as he had given Evelyn Brent's career a new lease of life, von Sternberg proceeded to do the same thing for Betty Compson. Although "The Docks of New York" was advertised as her comeback picture, according to Betty, she had never been away. In a chapter devoted to her in "From Hollywood" by DeWitt Bodeen, he chronicles her ups and downs of the twenties. She divorced her husband, director James Cruze, and was immediately besieged by creditors (to do with his bankruptcy). She then realised most of the major studios thought she was a has been but instead of taking it to heart, she went over to Chadwick, a poverty row studio and worked so hard she got back into shape and once again had the big studios bidding for her services. Another actor von Sternberg rescued was George Bancroft, who spent most of the 20s as a Western badman albeit with a hearty laugh. First casting him as the charismatic gangster in "Underworld" then as the burly stoker, Bill Roberts, in "The Docks of New York". Bancroft was larger than life!!!

The story is simple, Roberts rescues a prostitute after she has thrown herself in the river. Initially hoping to paint the town red before departing the next morning, he takes a shine to Mae's vulnerableness and convinces her a good time is better than a watery grave. After carousing at the dockside tavern Bill gets carried away and proposes to Mae and after much coaxing she accepts - but she is serious as is the parson "Hymn Book Harry" (Gustav Von Seyffertitz) whose withering look upon those assembled tells you just what he thinks of them. Come the morning Bill is preparing to leave, treating the whole thing as a joke, but back on the ship......

The music is wonderful with an orchestral score that has a real feel for the gritty reality of the docks - it also incorporates popular songs of the day "A Bird in a Gilded Cage", "The Sidewalks of New York" etc. I should have realised it was the brilliant Robert Israel, my favourite composer of silent film scores.

Making just as much of a dazzling impression is Baclanova as a distinctly unglamorous waterside worker. She is married to Bill's brutish boss, but tells Mae "I was decent too - until I got married"!!!
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The Fabulous Betty Compson
drednm21 August 2005
What a treat this tough, realistic movie is. George Bancroft, Betty Compson, and Olga Baclanova are all great is this cynical yet tender story of the waterfront.

Director Josef von Sternberg fills a simple tale with pathos and great atmosphere. Tough stoker Bancroft rescues a girl (Compson) from a suicide attempt and "marries" her for a night of fun. But he gets involved in a web of murder, thievery, and drunkenness.

When Norma Desmond said "we had faces then" in Sunset Boulevard (and yes I know it was Gloria Swanson), Betty Compson was at the top of the list. With her big eyes and crooked mouth, Compson was expert at expressing emotion with a twist of the mouth, a flick of the eyelashes. She is wonderful here as Mae, the waterfront gal. Bancroft is also terrific as the big lug who falls hard for Mae. And Baclanova, best remembered for "Freaks" is a dynamo as the wronged wife.

Great scenes of water and fog and birds serve as a backdrop to the drama that enfolds.

Bancroft and Compson won Oscar nominations in the early days of the award and are pretty much forgotten now, but they serve up sparks here in this terrific film. A must see!
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silence is golden
mjneu5914 November 2010
Josef von Sternberg's visually romantic melodrama heralded the last gasp of classic silent film expression before the arrival of sound technology set the art of movie-making back 30 years. Moving from poetic realism to dramatic fantasy, the fairy tale plot follows a cruel, amoral ship's stoker who rescues a waterfront moll from attempting suicide. In a local tavern, after one drink and one fight too many, he casually decides to marry the girl, going through the motions in a farcical bar room wedding with no intention of honoring his vows. The scenario, characters, and themes of redemption are all well grounded in the particular moral and social climate of the late 1920s, but technically the film is equal to anything made since. Had it been produced just months later, it might have been little more than another novelty item from the primitive early sound era, instead of the artistic triumph it remains today.
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Terrific Vision and Atmosphere
Michael_Elliott2 September 2010
Docks of New York, The (1928)

*** 1/2 (out of 4)

Impressive melodrama benefits from some strong performances and some terrific visuals. The film tells the story of Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) a man who lives down on the docks who ends up saving a woman (Betty Compson) from killing herself. Over the period of a day he saves her life, then the two get to know one another before getting married hours later but neither of them know what the future might hold. The plot of this film is pretty simple and in many ways it's not too original but that doesn't hamper the film too much as director von Sternberg has such an amazing eye that each scene contains something fresh even if the story in that scene isn't anything new. I'm not sure how much a better story would have helped overall but it might have benefited in a few ways including the two actually falling for one another. In many ways this film plays out like a lonely males fantasy of him just happening to save a beautiful woman and then she gives him a chance of winning her heart. Being made years before the Code went into full effect allowed the director to show off some darker moments to both characters as it's made clear in a very funny scene that neither person are virgins and that they've both had their share of wild moments. What's most impressive about the direction here is his visual style, which is easily the most impressive that I've seen from him. Just take a look at the scene where Bill saves the woman. The fog is laid on very thick making the scene come off almost like a fantasy sequence and the way von Sternberg edits the thing makes it seem like some sort of strange dreamland. The way the girl is seen, pulled from the water and eventually carried home are all shot very darkly with very little light and what light there is comes mainly from the reflections off the fog. I loved the way von Sternberg shot the scene where the woman comes to and is introduced to the man who saved her. I loved where the camera was placed and how the lighting once again plays a very important part. The atmosphere is a very thick one as you can feel how dirty the docks are and all the people there seem like the type you'd actually find living and working there. Bancroft delivers a very good performance in a role he has no problem playing. The toughness of the character is very believable with Bancroft in the role but he also handles the more quiet and tender moments. Compson has the harder of the two roles as her character is much darker but she has no problem making us care for her. The two don't look like the types who would be together but their performances are so good and the two act so well together that they make us believe. While the film is far from flawless it's well worth watching for the performances and directing.
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Atmospheric and gritty
gbill-7487718 October 2020
A brawny sailor takes one night of shore leave on the rough and tumble docks of New York, and on his way to a riotous den of iniquity, saves a young woman from drowning herself. Despite his coarseness and her "loose" past, the two take a liking to one another; as he puts it, "I've sailed the seven seas, but I never saw a craft as trim as you." In the spur of the moment they decide to get married, though it's unclear just how official it is given no license and the fact that his ship leaves the next morning.

Josef von Sternberg does a great job creating the mood of this place with his use of shadows and reflections, and the way he tells the story is fantastic. The characters are dark and believable, and the film doesn't degenerate into cloying sweetness. George Bancroft plays the sailor very well, with a sense of strength and confidence but not meanness, and Betty Compson shows great vulnerability as the woman, someone beaten down by the world and the men who've used her. Neither think anyone would ever want to marry them. In a nice parallel plot line, another of the ship's crew (Mitchell Lewis) comes ashore as well, only to find his estranged wife (Olga Baclanova) whooping it up with another man.

Aside from the suicide attempt, drunken partying, and brawling in the film, it's not shy about alluding to sex and what these sailors do while on shore leave. We see the lewd graffiti on their ship, a full-length nude woman tattooed to the guy's forearm, and it's clear that after the brief wedding ceremony, he's going to have his way with her for the rest of the night (the teary eyes of Baclanova really show this during a hug and a kiss with Compson). After being mocked by the crowd, the priest brings a semblance of morality reminding them they're "gathered together in the sight of God," which leads to a great shot of quieted face through the smoke of the room. The question is whether the two characters can redeem themselves, and given the dark commentary about the other marriage which has failed, von Sternberg kept me guessing. The way he shoots many of the scenes toward the end is wonderful, and none better than that pull away final shot.
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Another Classic from Josef von Sternberg.
SameirAli31 January 2017
Josef von Sternberg is a director not very well known among the normal audience. He is a legend to be learned thoroughly.

The movie is about a ship worker called Bill. He has just one night to spend ashore. He finds a young lady, Mae, trying to commit suicide in the sea. He helps her and takes to the near by bar. Later Bill asks her to marry him on an instant. The bar then gets ready for the wedding at that night. The rest you should watch and enjoy!.

It is hard to believe that the entire movie was shot on a Hollywood sound stage. The set was so perfect to be made up. Josef von Sternberg is always an expert at it.

If you are a movie freak, this movie should be added to the watch list. A worth watch.

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What you might expect to see if Popeye wrote a romance film!!
MartinHafer25 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I know you might think my summary is ridiculous, but I swear to you that this very accurately describes this movie...really! The film begins aboard a merchant ship. George Bancroft is a stoker and is much like Popeye--but without the spinach and the obviously anorexic girlfriend. When he's on shore for the evening, he sees a lady in the water (Betty Compson)--trying to kill herself. George naturally jumps in and saves her. Later, when they begin talking, the subject of marriage comes up and somehow the two end up deciding to get married--even though they know nothing about each other. It's obvious both have sowed MANY wild oats but the audience naturally hopes they make a go of it. But, in the morning the reality of this ridiculous marriage becomes obvious--he's a seaman and it seems to be implied she's a 'professional girl'. So, George sets off to sea. Can this bizarre relationship STILL work out and the two live happily ever after? Tune in and see if you are curious!

The film has an extraordinarily simple plot. But, because the direction by Josef von Sternberg is so deft and the acting so amiable, you will probably have a tendency to forgive the simplicity of the film. A very good film...and, as I said, the sort of love story Popeye might have written...or at least might shed a tear over if he'd seen it! Strange but very good.
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Decent film with some good moments
km_dickson9 September 2005
It's the fine directing and good performances that really make the film worth watching. The story is interesting enough, covering one night ashore in the life of ship stoker, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), and the mysterious beauty he meets (Betty Compson). Bancroft is all masculinity as Roberts, a man who won't let anything or anyone stand in the way of what he wants. He meets his match, though, in Compson, who is all sex appeal as Mea, the seductive but troubled blonde with a dark past. These two are backed up with good supporting performances from the rest of the cast, the only exception being Olga Baclanova, who hams it up more than necessary. Director Josef Von Sternberg handles the ensemble cast well, giving each character importance. He also does a good job of portraying and letting us experience the seedy life they live. Nonetheless, some of the main characters aren't fleshed out enough for us to understand their actions. The film also tries too hard at times to be shocking and edgy. All in all, it's not the best film ever, but it has enough good qualities to be enjoyable.
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Waterfront Romance
st-shot29 December 2020
Stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is a surly sort doing dirty work who does not take kindly to being pushed around. On his way to his favorite waterfront dive one night he comes upon a suicidal woman Betty Compson flailing about off the dock. He pulls her out and is indifferent about it but soon finds her growing on him and decides in a spur of the moment to marry her. The day after the wedding he splits on her but when he finds out she's been accused of the crime he committed he returns to do the right thing.

As he did in the previously made Underworld (27) Josef Von Sternberg offers up a visual feast of bois de la boule along the waterfront. From foggy exteriors to smoky interiors Von Sternberg and his cameraman create an impressive lower depths existence where there is no shortage of laughter and liquor to be found at The Sandbar in spite of the hardscrabble existence of its denizens.

Bancroft as the stoic stoker, Roberts, showing a lot more restraint than his over the top turn in Underworld displays an abrasive sensitivity and interesting chemistry with Compson along with a believability that resonates in their final scene together. Compson as forlorn Faye takes acting honors with a performance that runs sound over the entire emotional spectrum. Olga Baclanova is also a major plus in a supporting role but the look of Docks ultimately remains the star. One good looking silent.
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Waterfront Drama
EdgarST20 December 2011
"The Docks of New York" is an excellent Sternberg film, a directorial "tour de force" that resumes in 76 minutes the drama that occurs in 12 hours to a ship stoker (George Bancroft), after he saves a young woman from suicide. The sets evoking the New York waterfront were completely built in studios, so Sternberg was able to fluidly move his camera in a sordid ambiance and among characters stricken by poverty, alcohol, depersonalized sex and loneliness. Two years later, in 1930, Clarence Brown directed Greta Garbo in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie", in which she plays a prostitute who comes back to live in New York with her father, an old sailor who has not seen in her in 15 years and thinks she is a virtuous lady. Both films have a similar look, and I would not be surprised if stylist Sternberg's motion picture had an influence on the art directors of Brown's film. Highly recommended.
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THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (Josef von Sternberg, 1928) ***1/2
Bunuel19766 March 2011
Sternberg's best-regarded Silent film is also considered, along with F.W. Murnau's not dissimilar SUNRISE – A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927), Hollywood's artistic pinnacle during this era. The narrative is almost exclusively restricted to its exquisitely re-created titular setting, which is most evocatively lit throughout; incidentally, the waterfront crowd here is possibly the most boisterous ever depicted as something is always going on (brawls over women, drunks being thrown out, etc.) at the dive where a lot of the action takes place!

The plot, as always with the director is secondary and somewhat plain: rowdy stoker George Bancroft (his third of 4 pictures for Sternberg, one of which – THE DRAGNET [1928] – is regrettably lost) goes ashore for one night, saves suicidal waif Betty Compson and marries her (presided over by sour-faced reverend Gustav von Seyffertitz, the ceremony sequence constitutes one of the film's highlights), knowing he will be leaving again the next morning.

Complicating matters is the hero's bullying superior aboard ship, who sets his eyes on the girl as well – despite being married to Olga Baclanova (she, on her part, has been 'running around' during his time at sea!). Though we are never specifically told what drove Compson to make such an extreme gesture, we can assume she wanted out of the kind of sordid life that is perhaps mandated by this milieu (she certainly manages to pick herself up pretty quickly and also seems to build an immediate rapport with Baclanova!).

Eventually, the latter's husband forces himself upon Compson and winds up dead; when she is about to be arrested, Baclanova's confession makes us realize it was not an act of self-defense but rather a crime of passion. Ironically, the heroine is still brought to trial when it is reported that the clothes she is wearing were stolen (by Bancroft) on the night she was saved!; just, then, however, he re-appears (having jumped off his ship!) to take the blame – and Compson promises to wait for him.

As I said, the meticulous detail and beautiful cinematography are the main thing here – but the acting is commendable regardless, particularly the leading lady (who probably was never better…though she would be Oscar-nominated for her subsequent movie, THE BARKER [1928], now forgotten and presumably unavailable for appraisal: for the record, I do own a couple of her other vintage efforts but they are, as yet, unwatched).
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Sweet Yet Edgy Silent Masterpiece
Hitchcoc6 March 2021
Josef von Sternberg delivered again with the 1928 view of life on the docks of New York. Bill, a stoker, comes ashore for one night. While there a beautiful young woman falls into the water near the ship. He dives in, saves her, and carries her to a tough seaside saloon. He is a swaggering characters with few social graces (and he knows it). Of course, he is on the make, but he is also a bit of a gentleman. She recovers and as sort of a joke, they call in a local minister who reluctantly marries them (without a license). He is scheduled to ship out after their night together. So what does he do. i got a real kick out of this film. I'm not an expert on cinematography, but I felt for a film from this era, the visuals were outstanding. I also thought the use of close-ups and the acting without words really worked here. A major complement from me would be that I forgot I was watching a silent film.
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