Josef von Sternberg
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 20 August 2010
Source Universal VHS
Categories von Sternberg & Dietrich
More than one man changed her name to “Shanghai Lily”—but only one man can change it back. As star passenger aboard Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich’s world-weary Lily is as quick-witted as she is devastatingly beautiful, weapons that have earned her a reputation as the city’s most notorious “coaster,” having made a name for herself living off wealthy men up and down the Chinese coast. As well as she’s survived by her wits, this particular shuttle between Beiping and Shanghai will challenge Lily’s hardened outlook, and restore her nearly-lost faith. Shanghai Express is perhaps the most famous of the von Sternberg & Dietrich collaborations, with cracking dialogue (courtesy of The Big Sleep’s Jules Furthman and an uncredited Howard Hawks) that further enriches the director’s exquisitely shot vision of the Orient.
Shanghai Express’s pace is lean and rigorous, and meant to mirror an “actual” railway journey during that golden age of the locomotive. There is reality in the confusion of the cattle call for passengers to climb aboard, and in the inevitable delays caused by cows on the track. However, this is also a train conducted by von Sternberg, and therefore, romance and intrigue run high. There is the ever-present danger of Chinese rebels halting the journey, and there is of course, the fellow passengers, a lively cast of characters: an opium dealer, an elderly boarding house owner complete with her small dog, a fervent missionary, a French officer, and another woman of ill repute, Hui Fei (portrayed by an intense Anna May Wong). There is also Clive Brook’s stoic Captain Donald ‘Doc’ Harvey, who soon realizes his old flame, Magdalen, is the much whispered about Shanghai Lily.
The lovers’ reunion is all traded barbs, carefully guarded feelings, and undeniable chemistry. It’s immediately clear that Lily and Donald still love one another, but von Sternberg makes them earn their way back into one another’s arms. For Doc, it’s a matter of letting go of the past, an ancient hurt caused by Magdalen’s failed attempt to rouse his jealousy. Magdalen, although outwardly changed, is not as different as Doc believes her to be. Von Sternberg, as skilled as ever in outfitting his leading lady, cues us into Magdalen/Lily’s inner thoughts through clothing, as she wraps herself in glorious feather boas and collars, and shields her face with a netted veil. These accessories are attention-getting, but they also obscure—underneath, the she dons a rather simple, if attractive black dress. It’s a carefully constructed identity, yet Lily’s façade; cannot mask her love for Doc, nor her inner steel.
The estranged lovers, as artificial as their verbal jabs may seem, are the soul of Shanghai Express; while the experience of watching the film is overwhelmingly tactile, they remain its core. This is a film that practically shimmers off the screen in its luster, with photography that won its cinematographer, Lee Garmes, an Oscar (though Dietrich claims in her autobiography that von Sternberg is responsible for the camerawork). What would in reality be a barbarous journey slips into escapist fantasy, with billowing smoke, seductive shadows cast through screens, the sheen of silk and feathers and, its most memorable image, the sexually charged, held shot of Dietrich trembling with her cigarette in the train corridor. However, that aforementioned shot is only as affecting for what occurs before it. Lily visits Doc after he has again rejected her, refusing to believe that she prayed for his safe return from Chinese revolutionaries, let alone that she risked her life for his. Their exchange is brief as she asks for a cigarette; he notes that she is trembling, and she responds, “It’s because you touched me, Doc.” The silence, aside from the train racking along, is high with tension, culminating in that close-up that leaves us holding our breath.
Von Sternberg concludes his film once again with a romantic coupling, but unlike the earlier Morocco, the love here is far from masochistic, nor does Lily have to renounce herself for her man. The conclusion of Lily and Doc’s affair is as touching as it is sexy, a triumph of acceptance and unconditional love. With its style, humor, glamour, performance, and pure panache, Shanghai Express is an immersive experience, arguably the apex of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s collaboration.
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