The Docks of New York is not Josef von Sternberg’s greatest. But it’s a corking program picture, thanks to George Bancroft, a good story and Julian Johnson’s titles.
Sternberg’s direction is excellent, but it is in the casting that the picture falls short of special classification. Betty Compson as an elliptical-heeled frail, who is punch drunk from life and attempts suicide, only to be rescued by Bancroft, a roughneck stoker, fails to get underneath the characterization. In real life she would probably have four husbands in the rack and be chalking up for the fifth.
Bancroft as Bill Roberts, the husky, hard-drinking, two-fisted stoker, has a role that he can make roll over. Roberts, on his one night ashore, saves the girl, and in a spirit of bravado marries her in a waterfront dive operated by a crimp (Guy Oliver).
Next morning Roberts again is ready for sea. He is on his way to a ship when a crowd and the arrival of the police arouses his curiosity. He returns to find the girl about to be arrested for shooting the third engineer of the crew (Mitchell Lewis), who had entered her room and tried to force his attentions on her.
The scenario is adapted from the John Monk Saunders original, The Dock Walloper. Exquisite photography helps a lot. Foggy mystic water shots give the waterfront the same quality of Street Angel.