The Docks of New York

Set in some undefined past when “reform” hadn't yet swept the waterfront clean, The Docks of New York evokes an underworld as pictorially rich as it is sociologically impoverished. Here, while sooty sailors and weary hookers enact grotesque rituals in brawling nightspots, Sternberg revels in reflections on murky water and silhouettes by gaslight. Stoker George Bancroft fishes would-be suicide Betty Compson out of the harbor and offers her a good time. “I've had too many good times,” she says; “I never did a decent thing in my life,” he admits as he rescues her once again. This miniature saga of degradation and unexpected honor, marriage at night and murder in the morning, showcases Sternberg's mastery of shifting tone and mood. “Nowhere, not even in the best Dietrich films, is Sternberg in better command of dramatic tempo, alternating action with nearly motionless tableaus cut through with conflicting emotions” (Janet Bergstrom).

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