We do not really know who attacked Andy, Lou’s husband, in Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York. We see that Andy, behaving lecherously, is perhaps poised to rape Mae in Mae’s room above The Sandbar, a seedy dockside bar, and we see Lou slip into the room, closing the door behind her and in our face. We know that the police arrest Mae for the crime but let her go when Lou comes forward to say that she did it, ambiguously adding she won’t let anyone else take “credit” for it. We also know from a series of two-shots of the two that Lou has been loath to let Mae out of the same frame and has even kissed Mae lingeringly on the mouth. Lou, then, has an incentive to take the rap for Mae; it’s called love, baby.
Bill Roberts, a stoker, on shore leave for one night rescues Mae, who tried drowning herself (the drop of the ship’s anchor chillingly anticipates Mae’s suicide attempt); on a drunken lark, Bill marries Mae that night but leaves her for his ship the next morning. However, there is another drop into the cold water: Bill, who swims back.
Most viewers wonder whether Bill will cleave to Mae; but in the smoky, shifty, ambiguous atmosphere that Sternberg and cinematographer Harold Rosson have conjured it is just as likely that Mae, possibly a prostitute like Lou, will abandon Bill. “I have had too many good times,” Mae at one point tells Bill; she may be addicted to these, making her a poor prospect for marriage.
Bill and Mae suggest Andy and Lou, and in the film’s best shot we see Bill literally dragging Mae’s mirror-image beyond the mirror’s edge in The Sandbar.
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