Shanghai Express (1932)
“Many Men Had Loved Her — but only one had been loved in return !”
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong
Synopsis: In Peking, China, during a civil war, British Capt. Donald Harvey meets his old flame Magdalen and learns with dismay that she has become a prostitute known as Shanghai Lily.
Shanghai Express is essentially another of director Josef von Sternberg’s paeans to Marlene Dietrich’s exquisite cheekbones, which are so perfect that they appear to have been chiselled from fine marble. His camera – apparently von Sternberg was more responsible for the camerawork than the credited, Oscar-winning cinematographer Lee Garmes – seems to caress Dietrich’s face as it dwells upon her like some hapless acolyte held in her thrall. By comparison, British leading man Clive Brook, who plays Ms. Dietrich’s love interest, looks like an accountant from Basingstoke who’s swallowed a wasp. Lord only knows what was behind the casting decision there.
Dietrich plays the notorious Shanghai Lily, a woman who ‘lives by her wits,’ which, in 1930s Hollywood, was a euphemism for a hooker. She’s one of a motley crew of passengers on the eponymous Shanghai Express, chief of which is Captain ‘Doc’ Harvey, an upright army surgeon with whom she once had a passionate affair – although it‘s frankly quite impossible to imagine the doc getting passionate about anything. Another passenger is Henry Chang (Warner Oland), part-white, part-Chinese, who is secretly the leader of a group of rebels who over-run the train when one of their number on-board is arrested. Chang and Harvey seem set for a costly confrontation when the guerilla leader takes a shine to Lily, and offers her an ultimatum.
Shanghai Express is classic old-school Hollywood entertainment, successfully evoking the claustrophobic clutter of a pan-Chinese express train with a handful of sets. The pace of the story is fast and tight, apparently to correspond with the motion of the train, so while the plot may be a little creaky and the characters strictly stereotypical, it races along fast enough for the audience never to grow restless. Sadly, although von Sternberg is able to elevate Dietrich to the status of Goddess with judicious choice of lens and lighting, he can do little about her inappropriately monotone delivery. She’s supposed to be world-weary, jaded by her chosen life, but her dull tones simply suggest profound boredom most of the time, and her eyes roll restlessly as if looking for a means of escape. However, even Dietrich appears over-animated compared to the starchy, buttoned-down performance of Colin Clive as the rueful love of her life. Never has there been such a miserable leading man.
Despite the monotonous delivery and misery of the leads, the film still manages to entertain, thanks largely to a diverse and colourful cast, including Anna May Wong, as another equally cynical prostitute, and foghorn-voiced Eugene Pallette as an inveterate gambler incapable of stopping himself from offering odds on the outcome of every situation the group are faced with. Sternberg’s tight and economical style of direction also adds to the enjoyment to be derived from witnessing a piece of work from an era when Hollywood, while still coming to terms with the advent of talking pictures, was already approaching its prime.
(Reviewed 8th July 2012)