The Docks of New York, 1928
Dir: Josef von Sternberg
I don't think that you can be a fan of cinema and not like this film. I'm not saying this is exactly what I'm looking for, but its compact nature and skillful composition, in all facets of the production, make this more than just interesting but also enjoyable. Sternberg was notorious for his meticulous preparation and his unique aesthetic, which he exemplified in one of his more famous quotes (which no doubt would not have gotten him any jobs in Hollywood nowadays), "I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented."
In a nutshell, that is the job of a director (unless he wrote the screenplay as well), but Sternberg was much more influenced by his European counterparts, in a similar but not wholly comparable way to Ford. The Docks of New York is all about the expressionist and moody touches that Sternberg places on the 1 day furlough of sailor, well, a shoveler on a boat really (George Bancroft) who saves the life of a woman (Betty Compson) who attempts to commit suicide on the depressed waterfront of New York City. A great premise, if I do say so myself. After some drinking and talking in a seedy bar, they decide to get married, despite the fact that Bill, the sailor, has found out that Mae, depressed woman, is a prostitute. The next morning, Bill seems to have dismissed the marriage as something silly, as he will be heading out on the next boat. Can love survive?
What really makes this film great are the said expressionist touches and moody lighting, all done by Sternberg, who was also a certified union cinematographer. He is known as being the king of soft-light, particularity in some of his more famous non-silents, and here you can see what is meant by that with the flattering close-ups of females, which he was sort of an innovator of. The mis-en-scene and camera work is reminiscent of people like Max Ophuls and Kenji Mizoguchi, who were clearly influenced by works like this. So why isn't this a masterpiece? Well, for some people, I'm sure it is, and I wouldn't begrudge them their decision. But it is almost too simple stroy wise, and there is just not a whole lot that I'm left feeling at the end. I know that I've raged against the "narrative-focused" films, which this is obviously not, but it's not about that. There is something, some underlying emotion or purpose, that just seems to be missing. If you ever get the chance to see this though, it will probably be worth it, because sometimes the simplest stories can be the best, especially in the hands of someone who thinks outside the box.