Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Shanghai Express

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

Was Von Sternberg going for camp here, or is this just how they made movies back then? It's almost impossible to tell. The supporting characters in this movie are not quite charicatures, but they are definitely types. They serve as decoration for a thin story about a woman with a scandalous reputation and a stuffy soldier meeting again after five years, while the revolution in China provides a background.

The story is thin, but serviceable. Former lovers meat on a train, bicker a bit, and then are held hostage by one of their fellow passengers. One makes a sacrifice for the other, but is too proud to admit it, and it falls to an obnoxious other character to make them realize how much they still love each other. It is, compared to today's films, remarkably uncluttered; there's no third person to create a love triangle, and the supporting characters are pretty much all comic relief, rather than having distracting subplots.

Unfortunately, Marlene Dietrich is the only star this movie has. She's beautiful, playful, and as naughty as a film made with the Hayes Code in effect will let her be. As "coaster" Shanghai Lily, she runs rings around her costar, Clive Brook, who is stilted and, though reasonably good looking, without charisma. The rest of the cast is serviceable, notably Walter Olund as a half-Chinese businessman and Anna May Wong as another "coaster", the term for women who travel the Chinese coast living "by their wits".

The dialogue is stilted, and some of the "action" is laughable. A massacre involving machine guns involves a lot of clutching of chests and falling bloodlessly over, not even in sync with the sound effects. The effect is of a movie star in a movie that doesn't deserve her, although Von Sternberg spent Paramount's money well, on nice sets and believable-looking exteriors. The movie looks pretty good, but I'm not sure how much of the laughter from the audience is what the filmmakers were going for.

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