Silent von Sternberg

I’ve never been much of a Josef von Sternberg fan; with the exception of The Scarlet Empress, his films have always struck me as stiff, dull, and talky, in spite of his masterful command of mise en scene.  Talkiness isn’t a problem from which The Docks of New York (1928) suffers: the silent film may lack the visual flair of his later films, but there’s also no clunky dialogue to have to cut through.  Running a tight seventy-five minutes and set over a period of roughly 24 hours (during which time Our Hero, a stoker on a steamship, saves the life of a prostitute while on shore leave, marries her, abandons her, and returns to her), it’s economical and lean, and, for better or worse, has none of the baroque weirdness of, say, The Shanghai Gesture.  My favorite moment occurs when George Bancroft insists that Betty Compson check out his muscular, tattooed forearm—which she does, with a certain reluctant curiosity.


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