Shanghai Express ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Beautiful atmosphere. Very dreamlike and desolate, with some quietly dazzling imagery (the best of it involving Marlene Dietrich, who we'll get to in a moment) that makes a striking, fascinating piece of cinema out of a script that's very imperfect, if still fairly good. Lush but not overly ostentatious, Josef von Sternberg's direction in tandem with James Wong Howe and Lee Garmes' cinematography form the film's first "secret weapon".

As for Dietrich herself, her performance is the film's other "secret weapon". She deals in gestures, in movements, performance of the sort that we in the modern day don't necessarily equate with naturalistic, "good" acting. And yet, Dietrich's screen presence is such that those more performative, supposedly unnatural flourishes feel instinctive and insightful. Most importantly, the constructed elements of her performance make it all the more striking when she pulls out a remarkable sense of honesty in pivotal moments. Her character, Madeline, trades in calculated behaviors, performing the actions that will keep her safest in the circumstances she finds herself in. But there are moments where she lets her guard down, and Dietrich allows us to understand Madeline more fully. The desire in her eyes when Captain Harvey is leaning over her and they just gaze at each other. The longing with which she stares to the heavens while smoking her cigarette after another tense conversation with the man who loves her yet still doubts her. Perhaps most striking, the fumbling, shaking way she clasps her hands in prayer, her face completely invisible to the viewer. For one moment, Dietrich's honesty and her physicality converge, and we see Madeline's terror for her love and her own safety, her discomfort before a God she is unsure exists, her fragile faith crafted on short notice and against her better judgment, and her deep devotion to a man who by his own admission is unworthy of her. All of this conveyed with the movement of her hands.

Anna May Wong is also fantastic, the only performance in the film that matches Marlene Dietrich's power. Unfortunately, her actual character Hui Fei is rather underutilized. While the role is pivotal and decisive despite being so small, the character herself doesn't get fleshed out as much as I'd like. Which is a real shame, because what we see of Hui Fei hints at a deeply interesting character, and Wong bestows a remarkable sense of passion and interiority to her that the film only has a passing interest in.

I must say, it's also refreshing to see a movie from the '30s that has some self-awareness about the tropes it's using. While I still rate the script as "very-imperfect-but-fairly-good," (for reasons both ideological and dramaturgical in nature) I really quite appreciate that it allows the man to end his arc by admitting that he was dumb and misjudged his love because of his own fragility. It's a low bar, but so many Hollywood films, then and now, would take his side without any reflection about it. I'm not too familiar with the pre-Code era, but I definitely feel like that type of nuance gets flattened out in the love stories that came after the Hays Code (even in movies I like), so it was nice to see. I also feel like the film does a surprisingly good job of creating a sense that the white characters are just kind of outsiders in this political conflict that really isn't any of their business in a country and culture that isn't theirs. Mind you, there's still plenty of orientalism (and yellowface yiiiiikes) that can't really be erased by any amount of being self-aware or "fair for its day" but for a movie made by, for, and about white people in the '30s, it could have been quite a bit worse. (Truly the bar is in hell.) That said, I don't feel qualified to parse its racial/cultural politics beyond "Some of it was very bad, some of it was not-terrible and those elements just kind of co-exist" because I am very white and very stupid and don't feel like I could unpack everything there is to unpack about the matter. As a screenplay, Shanghai Express is very much of its time and place in both film history and overall American cultural history, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

All in all, Shanghai Express is a striking, fascinating, but imperfect piece of pre-Code cinema that really shines thanks to its gorgeous filmmaking and some beautiful performances by Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.

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