Docks of New York is a moving but not-too-sentimental story about blue collar bar flies trying to find in each other an answer to their loneliness. It’s a good story that handles the complexities of marriage and its motives with remarkable nuance.
A scene that stood out to me more than any other is one in which a stoker, who’s on shore for just one night before being sent into sea again, steps into a bar in pursuit of a woman with whom he can spend a quick night and, in the process, ends up seeing his wife across the room, kissing and dancing with somebody else, and through the fray of the bar they catch each other’s eyes and, downtrodden, abandon their newfound partners, and gravitate toward one another, shuffling, like sad magnets. Each is bitter about finding the other this way. The wife is more composed about it. The husband is a wreck. The look and feel of this scene where they sit together in wordless hurt while the bar pulses around them reminded me of when an old girlfriend and I parted ways for our respective colleges, staying together for the long-distance thing, and after a couple years, when the bickering had become constant and our diverging paths harder to refute, we talked about maybe dating other people while staying together. Those conversations were grueling, but also, in a weird way, liberating. It was just talk, though, one of many efforts to save a relationship that was obviously not working, that was causing each of us more pain than pleasure, but to which we clung, I guess, because it was familiar.
Docks of New York seems to be questioning the durability of romantic bonds and also, I think, the influence that they have on a person’s sense of self. There’s a scene where our female lead, Mac (Betty Compson), is told by another woman (that woman who was just caught cheating by her own philandering husband) that marriage doesn’t necessarily make a person decent. She suggests, in fact, that marriage has the capacity to compromise a person’s decency.
There’s an impulsive wedding held in the bar because our male lead, played by George Bancroft, wants to have sex with Mae, who won’t sleep with him outside of a marital bed. The movie ends on a complicated note. One of our protagonists is going to jail for a while but we’re made to believe that things’ll be sunny when the character gets out. Not sure if it’s believable, or if it’s trying to be, and I don’t think I’ll ever voluntarily watch this movie again, interesting and well-made though it was, because finally I think it’s a bit more interested in its ideas than its characters. Not a sin, exactly, but definitely a shortcoming.