Shanghai Express feels fully realised rather than merely being a veiled star vehicle for Dietrich, who if anything does much more with much less than she had in Dishonoured.
Now in full collaboration with Joseph von Sternberg this 1932 ensemble piece is peppered with colourful stereotypes, ladies of ill repute and colonial refugees from a China in crisis. Released a year on from Dishonoured it gives us Marlene Dietrich in complete control of her gifts as Shanghai Lily, both dispassionate, enigmatic and strikingly detached. A woman of country wide reputation, her behaviour has defined her as dangerous to men of wealth. Accompanied by a demure Anna May Wong who is cast according to blinkered Hollywood regulations, these vamps are honey traps incarnate.
Ably supported by a selective group of solid character actors, Dietrich demonstrates measured pathos combined with an almost blasé attitude towards others. That she is capable of being so overtly callous and yet retain audience sympathy might provide clues to her continued popularity. Von Sternberg fleshes out the performance through masterful lighting, bold production design and acute attention to detail. There is also an underlying complexity to the screenplay with numerous twists, character nuances and moments of subtle comedy.
Shanghai Express feels fully realised rather than merely being a veiled star vehicle for Dietrich, who if anything does much more with much less than she had in Dishonoured. There are moments of star power however which remain undiminished even after almost ninety years. These instances go beyond mere lighting or uses of shadow and instantly transform that split second into undeniable iconography. In 1974, Orson Welles spoke of the reality then of Hollywood and how such things as movie stars no longer existed, yet when pushed about those early days he professed that Chaplin, Garbo and Dietrich amongst others really were unique.
No one has been able to understand how movie cameras transform some actors into super stars and others into character players. How some are destined to be known globally while others are revered yet not immediately recognisable. With Shanghai Express the definition as alluded to by Welles can be seen emanating from Dietrich with no rhyme or reason. Irrespective of narrative, character name or motivations, the eyes are always drawn to her and that confidence which surrounds her does nothing to diminish the appeal.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Jules Furthman
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong
Released: 1932 / Genre: Thriller
Country: USA / IMDB
More reviews: Latest | Archive
Shanghai Express is out now as part of the “Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount” Blu-ray collection.