The fourth of the Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaborations (following THE BLUE ANGEL, MOROCCO, and DISHONORED), SHANGHAI EXPRESS is a mystical and exotic story of love and destruction, a film for which both star and director became legends. The film begins at the Peking Railroad
as China's great train, the Shanghai Express, is being boarded and loaded with baggage. En route to Shanghai is a mixed assortment of characters, including Dietrich, a lady of questionable reputation known as "the White Flower of the Chinese coast;" Clive Brook, a British Medical Corps officer;
Warner Oland, a shady half-caste merchant with a penchant for carrying a cane; and Anna Mae Wong, an American-bred Chinese prostitute with plans for starting anew in marriage. The time of the journey is one of great political unrest, with the possibility of bands of rebels attacking the train
looming large. Before the train even leaves the station, arrests are made. Brook is surprised to find that he is traveling with Dietrich, a past love of his whom he deserted. Because of his constant work and busy schedule, he has never heard of her reputation as a glamorous prostitute and
seductress. But he soon begins to understand Dietrich and the power she holds over men. In the meantime, it becomes clear to everyone on board that Oland is a rebel leader, desperate over the arrest of his aides. Along the way, Oland orders the train stopped at an old station that has been taken
over for use as rebel headquarters, while he makes plans to take hostages from among his fellow first-class passengers. Oland, like Brook, is strongly attracted to the elusive Dietrich, but when the rebel leader asks Dietrich to be his mistress, she turns him down flat. But Oland pressures
Dietrich by threatening to torture Brook. Only then--in order to save Brook--does Dietrich give in. Brook, however, is unaware of what she has done. Oland's fate is sealed, however, not by Dietrich or Brook, but by Wong, the prostitute in search of redemption, who has earlier been raped by the
insatiable rebel leader. As Oland returns to his room, Wong stabs him to death, thereby freeing herself, the Shanghai Express, and the love between Dietrich and Brook.
Though von Sternberg insisted the film was based on a one-page treatment handed him by Harry Hervey, the story of THE SHANGHAI EXPRESS is clearly drawn from Guy de Maupassant's classic short story of a French prostitute during the Franco-Prussian war, "Boule de Suif." The final film, however, is
all von Sternberg, his enigmatic creation, Dietrich, filling the screen with her stunning persona. Dietrich, as always, gave von Sternberg the exact performance he had envisioned, but feuds and hard feelings ran rampant between the director and the remainder of the cast. Von Sternberg was
something of a tyrant on the set, and actors received the brunt of his wrath. Lending further credence to his tyrannical image on the set, von Sternberg, who had nearly lost his voice from shouting, dismissed a suggestion from Sam Jaffe to use a megaphone, instead hooking up a public address
system. This enthusiasm and complete control over the production paid off for the director and for SHANGHAI EXPRESS come Oscar time. The film was nominated for Best Picture (losing to GRAND HOTEL), von Sternberg received a nomination for Best Director (his second in a row), and Lee Garmes walked
away with a statuette for his cinematography.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: The fourth of the Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaborations (following THE BLUE ANGEL, MOROCCO, and DISHONORED), SHANGHAI EXPRESS is a mystical and exotic story of love and destruction, a film for which both star and director became legends. The… (more)