Josef von Sternberg, the Austrian-born director, is probably best known for the 1930 German classic, The Blue Angel, which made Marlene Dietrich an international star. Prior to The Blue Angel, von Sternberg directed a number of feature-length silent films for Paramount Pictures. Underworld (1927) has been called the first modern crime film and was von Sternberg’s first commercial success. The Docks of New York (1928) is a gritty film featuring a suicidal young woman and the tough seaman determined to save her. Both of these gems offer ample evidence of von Sternberg’s considerable talent and are still capable of impressing modern audience decades after their initial release.
Underworld was written by Ben Hecht, a former Chicago newspaper reporter who had experience writing about organized crime and went on to become a co-writer of Scarface (1932). Hecht loosely based Underworld on the exploits of several Chicago gangsters, although von Sternberg re-worked the final script. Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) is a down-and-out alcoholic who is a witness to Bull Weed’s (George Bancroft) crime in the first scene of the film. Instead of killing or threatening the obviously intoxicated man, Weed drags him into his getaway car and eventually takes him under his wing and bankrolls him. This has a transformative effect on Royce and allows him to quit drinking, clean himself up and get his own apartment. After beginning work with Weed, Royce is introduced to Feathers (Evelyn Brent), Weed’s intoxicating girlfriend, who is used by von Sternberg to turn up the heat as the sexual tension grows stronger between the two.
Despite the obvious chemistry between Brent and Brooks and the emotional depth of their characters, it is Bancroft who shines the brightest in Underworld. His dramatic range is on full display as Bull Weed, who becomes a more complex character as the film progresses. Initially seen as a tough and fearless gangster, the audience eventually sees that he also possesses a great sense of humor and a caring side as well. His infectious smile and laughter (which would certainly be loud if we could hear it) show a confident man at ease with himself.
Josef von Sternberg keeps the pace quick in Underworld with his efficiency and ability to streamline action, showing the audience just enough to convey his point. With Underworld, von Sternberg showed he was capable of directing an accessible and entertaining picture that also contained depth and artistry. Von Sternberg shows off his skill in an innovative scene in which the faces of various drunken partygoers react to their distorted reflections in a carnival-style funhouse mirror.
George Bancroft went on to work with Josef von Sternberg again in The Docks of New York and he brings with him the same swaggering masculinity and charisma he demonstrated in Underworld, this time as Bill Roberts, a seaman who has just come in on shore leave for one night. Betty Compson plays Sadie, who decides she’s had enough of life and jumps into the East River to drown herself. The Docks of New York is so sumptuously photographed that it is hard to believe the entire film was shot on a stage in Hollywood. Bancroft is again the main focus here, although the atmosphere (including the scenes on the docks, in Bill’s ship, and at the Sandbar, a rowdy oceanfront pub) could also easily be considered a star in its own right. So it should not come as a surprise that, instead of another suitor vying for the woman’s affection, the main conflict here is whether Bill will choose to stay with Sadie or he will abandon her for his other love— the ocean. Despite the absence of an authentic ocean, von Sternberg manages to create unforgettable images inside the studio, such as Sadie’s reflection in the water before she jumps and Roberts in silhouette as he carries Sadie’s unconscious body through the smoky night to safety.
Regardless of what the American Cancer Society might have to say, von Sternberg turns the act of cigarette smoking into a revealing dramatic device in a number of scenes in The Docks of New York (as well as in Underworld). Alternately used as an act of defiance, bonding, sexual attraction, or as a peace offering, the act of lighting and smoking cigarettes is practically fetishized. Von Sternberg asserted, “The place for messages is a telegram. I don’t imbue films with messages.” Though largely renowned for his visual designs, a strong underlying thread of humanity runs through both Underworld and The Docks of New York. While they may not contain a message in the moral sense, both of these cinematic gems are subtly enriched by themes of longing, loyalty, and love.
Three Silent Films by Josef von Sternberg is a newly released DVD boxset.