In Josef von Sternberg’s early, great film The Docks of New York (1928), Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is a stoker indentured aboard a steamship gets one night at port. In that night, he saves the life of an ex-prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson), takes her to a saloon, chats her up, and eventually they mutually agree to get married. A reluctant minister is called in, all the barflies join in the celebration, and Lou (Olga Baclanova) – an old friend of Mae’s who happens to be the girlfriend of Bill’s boss – gets all sentimental and gives Mae the kiss seen above.
Baclanova, best known as the soon-to-be-mutilated femme fatale in Tod Browning’s Freaks, oozes continental sex appeal (enhanced by the silence) alongside the warmed-over desperation and loneliness she shares with the rest of the cast. In that spontaneous kiss, she follows the credo of silent cinema at its best: actions speak louder than words. No title card about sisterhood, solidarity, or wistfulness could communicate as effectively as that moment of physical contact; it says, “I’ll miss you,” and so much more. The Docks of New York is a bittersweet portrait of drifting people (literally, as they live and try to die in the water) told through gestures, actions, flesh, and smoke. In this, it anticipates the rest of von Sternberg’s beautiful career.
I’ll share one more moment I found particularly striking: while chatting with Mae, the stoker unveils a very Pre-Code tattoo along his arm. Like I said, von Sternberg writes his story through the flesh of his characters. I saw The Docks of New York courtesy of Criterion’s recent “3 Silent Classics” release, which also includes The Last Command and Underworld; it even prompted an essay by Guy Maddin, which is always worth reading/celebrating. Thank you, Criterion, to exposing me to these shimmering, silent delights.
Over 60 years later, here’s another same-sex kiss. Instead of preceding a wedding, this one follows a murder. That’s because these two young men are Nathan Leopold (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet), the refined Chicagoan anti-heroes of Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and they’ve just killed Bobby Franks and disposed of his body. Just like Brandon and Phillip in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – a film more loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case – the violent act has brought them closer, inextricably binding their fates together as one. So naturally they share a few minutes of erotic reverie before cleaning up and leaving the swamp where they’ve left the body.
Swoon mixes the sensational “true crime” subgenre with the kinds of low-budget experimentation that were hallmarks of the New Queer Cinema in the early ’90s. I was frequently reminded, for example, of Todd Haynes’ Poison (1990), with its creative anachronisms and genre commentary, as well as Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), with its black-and-white cinematography and symbolic interludes. (Kalin has collaborated with Haynes and was an executive producer on Go Fish.) Swoon closely follows the actual chronology of the case, from the conception of the murder in 1923 to the donation of Leopold’s eyes after his 1971 death, but it’s interspersed with interior monologues, stock footage, dramatic reenactments, wet dreams, and even footage of amateur bird-watching.
Like Haynes’ work, Swoon sometimes reads as painfully pretentious, especially when Kalin’s ambitious, Cocteau-like conceits are undermined by the occasionally shoddy acting. But it’s nonetheless a compelling document of two different eras: first the sexually stultifying but decadent atmosphere of 1920s Chicago that helped breed the couple’s homicidal folie à deux, and then the renewed cultural freedom of the ’90s that let a new side to their story be told. Although Kalin’s visual storytelling may not be as rich and evocative as von Sternberg’s (after all, whose could?), it bespeaks a great erotic curiosity and openness, entangled with a predilection toward smugness and violence.