Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant
Shanghai Express (1932) is the fourth of the remarkable run of seven films Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. If any one of those magnificently obsessive works can be said to be the best, it’s almost certainly Shanghai Express—a perfect blend of irony, style, pulp adventure and unbridled romanticism. It is, in fact, the first film that comes to my mind when the concept of the “magic of the movies” crops up. Its faux-exoticism, entirely created in the studio and on the backlots, is a masterpiece of design. Its slightly absurd story—a diverse group on a train held for ransom by a Chinese warlord (Warner Oland)—perfectly suits both Sternberg’s needs and his penchant for the tantalizingly trashy. The complete stylization—down to the deliberately flat, strangely rhythmic delivery of the dialogue—creates its own world. And by some inexplicable alchemy, everything comes together in a seamless fusion that manages to create a haunting drama of love and faith that is like no other.
The film starts with a flurry of activity as its characters arrive and board the titular train. There are nine characters all told—“Shanghai Lily” (Dietrich), Capt. Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), Henry Chang (Warner Oland), Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), Rev. Dr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), and Major Lenard (Emile Chautard)—and every one of them has a secret of some kind. Though Sternberg insisted that all his characters in represented him (“spiritually”), there is, as usual in these movies, a specific Sternberg alter-ego—a character that resembles him physically and who will meet his downfall because of his obsession with the Dietrich character (at least until the seventh and final scene of the final film). In this case, it’s Henry Chang, marking the second time Warner Oland stood in for the filmmaker.
Our main interest, though, lies in Shanghai Lily and Capt. Harvey. They had once been lovers, but had parted because she refused to prove her fidelity and wanted to be taken on faith (faith is a key element here). At that time, she’d simply been Madeleine. Now, she’s become the notorious “Shanghai Lily”—the embodiment (and then some) of every suspicion Harvey might have had (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”). Of course, neither one of them is really over the other, which produces a cat and mouse game between them—only she’s now the cat. Or is she? The plot appears to say “Yes,” but the handling is more enigmatic, and her strange relationship with the apparently harshly judgmental Dr. Carmichael will reveal more than she ever wanted known.
The extreme stylization of the film gives it a strange, dreamlike quality—and one that doesn’t appeal to everyone in that it extends to the performances. It’s unclear whether or not Sternberg let anyone in the cast—apart from Clive Brook, who had lived with Sternberg during their early days in Hollywood—in on exactly what he was after. When asked why he was having him deliver his dialogue in the film’s odd deadpan, almost mechanical manner, Sternberg told Brook, “This is the Shanghai Express. Everybody must talk like a train.” That may sound peculiar, but it works in that it not only adds to the slightly otherworldly quality of the film, but it allows the often deliberately absurd dialogue (“What good is a watch without you?”) come across as intentionally arch and funny. This—if you give yourself over to the approach—also makes the lines strangely moving.
For me, the real question about Shanghai Express has always been whether or not Sternberg understood that all his irony and all his cynicism would add up to a gloriously romantic movie. The film may end with Dietrich literally removing a price tag from Brook and taking possession of his riding crop (suggesting that Brook has become the Sternberg character), but it never cancels out the almost giddy romance of it all.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Shanghai Express Tuesday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the Asheville Film Society.