Friday, February 10, 2006

The Docks of New York

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Length: 76 min.
Format: VHS
Date Viewed: 9 February

Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York is an exercise in simplicity and in outstandingly stylized cinematography and editing. The story is very brief and straightforward. Not much time is wasted as the film hurtles from A to B. The wedding scene and some of the sequences in the bar probably could have used a little trimming, but their length doesn't hurt the film much.

The most impressive thing about this film is how ahead of the time it feels. While talkies were beginning to enter theaters, some directors kept with silent films, and The Docks of New York comes in the late period of silents. Most all films through this era, silent or otherwise, suffered from copious overacting and a flat style with long, static shots and simplistic edits, but these are usually associated with silent films rather than with their talking counterparts.

von Sternberg's film, however, showcases dynamic and fluid cinematography highlighted by breathtaking lighting that serves as an obvious precursor to the film noir style, though here the lighting surpasses many of the film noirs that would follow. The shots inside the boat and the night exteriors of the first half of the film use streams of light pouring from obscured lights pointed towards the camera and tons of fog to create a perfectly dark and creepy atmosphere. This film may be the jewel in noted cinematographer Harold Rosson's crown.

von Sternberg once said that "shadow is mystery and light is clarity. Shadow conceals - light reveals. To know what to reveal and what to conceal and in what degrees to do this is all there is to art." After watching this film, it would be an understatement to say that von Sternberg and Rosson knew their art.


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