Inspired by recent viewings of Josef von Sternberg's 'Morocco' (1930) and 'Blonde Venus' (1932), I recycle here a few thoughts chicken-scratched about his masterpiece 'Shanghai Express' a couple years ago. —
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. Here she plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious Euro-vamp whose past relations with fellow passenger Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) inform the love affair at the center of the film. Based on the reactions of the train’s global assemblage of men, it becomes apparent that Lily’s reputation has already traversed the span between the rail-line’s endpoints or wider, stranger zones, like a nocturnal phantasy stalking a host in Murnau, Feuillade, or early Lang. But the myth soon settles into flesh-and-blood reality as Lily’s traveling companions realize she has no intention of playing spittoon for crass ejaculation. Done up in raven-feather boa, a haze of tobacco smoke, and an exotic veil that transforms her face into a duotone Domino-mask, Lily puts all preconceptions at bay once she commandeers the negotiations to free Captain Harvey from the clutches of a seditious guerrilla squadron — even if the officer’s freedom comes at the cost of giving herself over to an undersexed rebel leader.
Commencing at the moment of Lily’s escape, the film’s third act bucks the dictates of conventional Hollywood structure as it shifts attention to the reunited lovers reconciling their feelings with the unwavering individuality presupposed by their respective hard-line personae. The delicacy of the emotions at play is illustrated by a striking sequence wherein von Sternberg cross-cuts repeatedly between close-ups of a uniformly lit Captain Harvey, pensive and biting his lip, and a rebuffed Shanghai Lily, face luminous as she trembles and smokes in an otherwise pitch dark train compartment.
Also notable for its refusal to adhere to the hyperbolic Asian stereotypes rampant at the time of release (the only “cauc-Asian” actor turns out in the film to be of mixed pedigree, while the rape of could-be dragon-lady Hui Fei [Anna May Wong] unleashes a real emotional agency, and spurs her to a kind of languorous vengeance), 'Shanghai Express' establishes the fascination with the Orient that von Sternberg would go on to pursue in 'The Shanghai Gesture' (1941), 'Macao' (finished off by Nicholas Ray in 1952), and his great final masterpiece 'The Saga of Anatahan' (1954).