Reviews and notes
Josef von Sternberg's richest excursion into his obsession, the destructive power of love, and the finest of, his eight films starring, his protegee
Marlene Dieetrich, SHANGHAI EXPRESS
is the pivotal work of this director's uneven career. Even more successful than the same team's Morocco
(1930), SHANGHAI EXPRESS
earned $3 million, as well as an Oscar for cinematographer Lee Garmes and nommations for both film and director - tributes to Sternberg's concentration at a time when his recently divorced first wife was suing Dietrich for defamation of character and alienation of his affections.
The film's success encouraged both director and star into attempts at independence the Paramount regime would not permit: Sternberg's failure to impose on the studio his original story for Blonde Venus
(1932), a mistimed 1933 attempt to begin independent production in Germany with his star, and extravagant use of resources in his last two films with Dietrich, The Scarlet Empress
(1934) and The Devil is a Woman
(1935), led to the termination of his association with Dietrich and Paramount, twin blows from which he never fully recovered professionally.
Like many of Sternberg's films, SHANGHAI EXPRESS
follows the evolution of a sexual obsession, in this case the revival of an extinguished affair between elegant doctor Donald Harvey and the woman, known only as Magdalen, whose love he lost some years previously after a disastrous though unspecified test of faith. Now she is "Shanghai Lily, the notorious White Flower of China," en route
to Peking on the Shanghai Express which, unknown to all on board, will be the scene of their downfall as an incognito bandit leader discovers their weaknesses, which he exploits to rob them of both dignity and self-esteem. Only the lovers remain untouched, united by a bond of mutual need for immolation, and as the train arrives, Lily, in a suggestive and incomparably subtle scene of presenting her lover with a watch and taking in return his whip and gloves, signals that the all-powerful woman has won. The man is now her abject slave and possession.
A technical achievement of impressive stature, the film was managed by Sternberg with inspired generalship. Not, as he claimed, the creator of either sets, script or camerawork, he nevertheless made suggestions for each, moulding the contributions of his talented collaborators into a coherent whole. Dreier was instructed to build city sets so claustrophobically close to the train that on some occasions the carriages threatened to pull them down, Furthman to explore the multiple deceptions that lie at the core of personality, Garmes to extract from Dietrich the "spiritual power" which to Sternberg was the essence of art. A thousand Chinese extras were accumulated, a spur of the Santa Fe railroad closed off, and the San Bernardino and Chatsworth stations converted to Chinese terminals for the express. A train was painted, to Sternberg's specifications, in white and odd camouflage patterns, and miles of trackside country scoured of every un-Chinese building, sign or feature in preparation for a running battle between two trains that was never included in the film.
As in all his work, Sternberg created a world merely to set off the beauty and charisma of his star, one in which, surrounded by enigmatic Chinese ideographs and clad in black plumes quivering constantly from the train's vibration, she reigns supreme, the imperturbable spirit of love and its concomitant, the desire to destroy.
- John Baxter, Sixty Years of Hollywood, A S Barnes & Co., 1973.
Weblink: Review by Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid
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