Wednesday, January 13, 2010

67. Shanghai Express (1932)

Running Time: 80 minutes
Directed By: Josef von Sternberg
Written By: Jules Furthman
Main Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Warner Oland, Anna May Wong, Eugene Pallette


This one was dangerously close to being just another entry in the "unfound files", until I stumbled upon it over on YouTube. While my second look at a Josef von Sternberg film, was not as good as my first one (see "The Blue Angel"), this was still an enjoyable film.

We're introduced right off the bat to an eclectic group of characters, headed up by Shanghai Lily, a high class prostitute, or "coaster" as she's referred to here (played, in all her ravishing glory, by Dietrich) and Captain Donald Harvey, a member of the British Armed Forces. Among others we have: an Asian "coaster", Hui Fei, a habitual gambler Sam Salt, a cranky German invalid Eric Baum, boarding house keeper Mrs. Haggerty and the mysterious half Chinese, half white Henry Chang. We also learn quite quickly that Shanghai Lily and Capt. Harvey are former lovers and we're given bits and pieces of their backstory and apparently it ended quite badly, with both parties regretting the split. So when all these conflicting personalities are thrown together on the Shanghai Express, as it makes it's way from Peking to Shanghai, we the viewer, are certainly in for a bumpy, yet interesting ride.

With all those elements in play, add on top of that, that China is in the middle of a civil war and when government soldiers halt the train and inspect everyone's passport's, they seize a rebel informant. Immediately after this happens, Chang sends a coded telegram to his fellow rebels and soon after that the train is taken over by the leader of the rebellion, who turns out to be Chang. Chang questions all of the passengers in a search to see if any of them are acquainted with anyone of importance, as he needs a hostage to threaten the government with, so that they'll return his previously captured informant. Chang gets what he wants, as Capt. Harvey is on his way to Shanghai to perform brain surgery on the Governor of Shanghai.

Eventually Chang's man is released and while he was met with cooperation by Capt. Harvey, he has no plans to let him go, despite prearranged plans to do just that. Instead, he plans to deprive Capt. Harvey of his eyesight and when his former lover, Shanghai Lily hears of this plan, she offers herself to Chang, in exchange for the release of Harvey. The Captain is let go and Shanghai Lily finds herself in a sticky situation, until Hui Fei, who was forced to spend the night with Chang, decides to kill him and Harvey overpowers the rest of Chang's officers and breaks Lily out.

I've got to say that Marlene Dietrich is extremely ravishing in this picture and it's the cinematographer who does her justice, using her face to make some of the movie's most memorable visuals. Whether her face is shaded by a black veil or framed in feathers, Shaghai Lily is always made to look stunning, mysterious and sexy and Dietrich plays her so cool. While this film really wasn't something that I'd normally go for, with all of the spies, war and etc., I have to give credit to von Sternberg an Dietrich for pulling me in and holding my interest for eighty minutes. Besides Dietrich's great performance, it's the supporting cast who I enjoyed, for the most part. The character of Sam Salt was a riot, constantly offering bets to his fellow passengers of anything and everything that is able to be bet upon. All in all I would call "Shanghai Express" a moderately enjoyable flick and would certainly recommend it for Dietrich's performance alone.

RATING: 6/10 Better than your average flick and if I remember my previous ratings, most of my recent views have lingered in and around the '6' range.

NEXT UP: Freaks...Another movie that I have high hopes for and Tod Browning's last film in the "1001" book. Should be ready for review sometime tomorrow.

January 13, 2010 1:59am

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