Shanghai Express Screen 100 of 4 reviews

Shanghai Express

1932

Shanghai Express Poster
  • After an underwhelming run of catching up on this year's Oscar contenders, it was refreshing to revisit a classic of pre-Code Hollywood weirdness. Don't go into a Sternberg movie expecting an airtight tale of intrigue. His method is more to drop a woman like Marlene Dietrich—not to mention Anna May Wong—into the middle of a flimsy plot whose action is ostensibly driven by (much less interesting) men. A wet nightmare.

  • Dressed in decadence, awash in chiaroscuro, Dietrich is unforgettable, and while much is made of her image itself, there's more to it than an early auteur's obsessive gaze. Dietrich's presence is palpable, which goes hand-in-hand with the abundant confidence required to pull off Sternberg's increasingly larger than life heroines, and as it turns out here, she can deliver one-liners with the best of them.

  • The Chinese Civil War serves as the backdrop for this 1932 von Sternberg agent-thriller, but it’s the titular express train bound for Shanghai that will represent the main stage; viewed from more than seventy years in the future, the parallax is still dizzying. A sensual and threatening interplay between light, shadow, and layer upon layer of gauze circumfixes as ever the great director’s gaze, the focal object of which is none other than the incomparable Marlene Dietrich.

  • More action oriented than the other Dietrich-Sternberg films, this 1932 production is nevertheless one of the most elegantly styled. The setting, a broken-down train commandeered by revolutionaries on its way to Shanghai, becomes a maze of soft shadows and shifting textures, through which the characters wander in a philosophical quest for something—anything—solid. The screenplay, by Jules Furthman and an uncredited Howard Hawks, has a quality of wisecracking wit unusual in Sternberg's films.

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