3 January 2003 | bmacv
Sternberg, Dietrich reach their zenith in opulently photographed romantic intrigue as extraordinary today as it was 70 years ago
When Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express chugs out of Peking, squeezing through a teeming alleyway as it picks up steam, it marks the start of a momentous journey not only for its motley of passengers but for Hollywood. In this fourth teaming of the Svengali-like director and his Trilby of a star Marlene Dietrich they reach the zenith of their legendary collaboration and strike a template for the kind of movies America would do best and like best: voluptuous hybrids of adventure and intrigue, romance and raffish fun.
Leaving for Shanghai to operate on the stricken British Consul-General, army physician Clive Brook climbs aboard only to find the woman he loved but lost five years ago (Dietrich). Now, however, she goes by another appellation; as she explains, in the script's most emblematic line, `It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.' Her presence on the train, and that of one of her sisters-in-sin (Anna May Wong) is cause for scandal and indignation among the other passengers: prim boarding-house proprietress Louise Closser Hale (with her pooch Waffles smuggled on board); sputtering man of the cloth Lawrence Grant; sardonic gambling man Eugene Pallette; a Frenchman; a German; and the inscrutable, pre-Charlie Chan Warner Oland.
Soon, China being embroiled in a civil war, they have more to worry about than Dietrich's morals. Rebel troops halt the journey lead the passengers, one by one, to be interrogated by their warlord, who turns out to be Oland. The various eccentricities, secrets and agendas of the passengers get brought into the open, affording Oland opportunity to avenge any number of racial and personal slights. But finally he finds what he's been looking for a valuable hostage to serve as a bargaining chip in Brook. And from then on Shanghai Express becomes a drama of reckoning, with all the characters scheming to save their own (and occasionally one anothers') skins.
None of the players can be faulted, except for Brook, who gives a dead-earnest impersonation of the stick that stirs the fire; that Dietrich should have fallen for him is like believing several impossible things before breakfast. (Cary Grant was around in 1932; too bad Sternberg didn't catch up with him until his next movie, Blonde Venus.) But in his handling of Dietrich, Sternberg all but patents what came to be called star treatment. Stunningly lighted, her feline face is caught in a breathtaking range of moods and attitudes. But she's more than a passive vessel for the director's intentions her blend of worldly savvy and steely spine is hers and hers alone.
She isn't the only beneficiary of Sternberg's eye. He shoots the movie in a haunting, intense chiaroscuro (few movies from this early in the 1930s were so richly and handsomely photographed). He cuts from scene to scene teasingly, layering new shots on fading images, adding a little rubato to relate incidents of the story to one another. Shanghai Express may be the first masterpiece of the sound era, one that's still no less extraordinary today than it was 70 years ago.