In Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Don Lockwood sticks with what he knows as he kisses Lina Lamont in their first sound love scene, repeating “I love you, I love you, I love you.” In silence, this worked as the words spoken were an afterthought, a blank space where each viewer can fill in their own dream and desires. In sound, the same moment aches with vulgarity, and when screened for an audience, this scene inspires raucous laughter. Words seem to get in the way of romance, they are awkward and burdensome. If you’ve ever been in love, chances are it’s not because of what someone says to you: it’s how they look at you, how they touch you and how they make you feel.
Silence lets these desires rise to the surface as words drift to expository title cards. In Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, a deceptively simple love story grows out of atmosphere and gestures. Set on the foggy docks where sin and decadence reign, a prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson) tries to kill herself. Saved by Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a stocker docked overnight, the pair develop a love affair and impulsively decide to marry. Set over the course of just two days, their romance seems anchored in the fear of falling in love for the first time — a normal story told under unusual circumstances.
As both characters live by their bodies, their words hold less meaning than actions. They are not people of words or poetry, they are action oriented who rely on their physicality for survival. They are carnal by nature, though Sternberg does not speak down to their experience or overtly romanticize their work. These are real people fighting for their right to live. In this, their actions and reactions take on even more significance. Their love affair may seem natural given their mutual attractiveness, but even they seem shocked that their feelings seem rooted in something deeper that they don’t have the power to fully express; their growing love for each other reflected in how suddenly they seem less comfortable in their skin as their uneasiness comes to be expressed in unfinished actions and guarded looks.
However, the actual interaction between Mae and Bill only amounts to part of why the romance of The Docks of New York feels eternal. Sternberg, the eternal stylist, crafts a vision of the New York grounded in smoke and dirt. From the early moments of the inside of the stocker’s kingdom where Bill shovels coal to the crowded bars filled with smoke, it is still clearly a set, but one constructed with expressionistic flair. Clouded by the fog of dreams, the romance feels like it inhabits a world of the subconscious, a dream on the edge of a nightmare. And then, the camera moves and it takes on even greater heights. Following characters through crowds or bars, the viewer may feel a part of them. It’s not just that the camera moves that can lead one to feel swept up in the romance, it’s how the camera seems to sway like an organic creature, pulsing with blood and aching with desire.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.