Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Noir-a-Thon Double Feature Part 1: Shanghai Express (1932)

A double feature from the noir-a-thon this week, first up today is the supremely enjoyable Shanghai Express. For previous entries head over to our noir-a-thon vault.

: Josef von Sternberg
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Anna Mae Wong, Clive Brook
Year: 1932
Country of origin: USA
Language: English

Synopsis: Amid the Chinese civil war a train is travelling from Peiping to Shanghai; amongst the eclectic first class passengers two former lovers, Shanghai Lily and Captain Doc Harvey, are reunited by fate.

What Indie Nights? review

Hello again bbbg readers, remember me?
It's Leah, from What Indie Nights?!

I was sorry to miss out on last week's post, on the incredible film M, but unfortunately essay-writing is what will (one day, hopefully…) pay the bills, and it has taken over my life in the past two weeks. It's a poor excuse for having missed the second ever noir-a-thon post, but it's all you're gonna get. Anyway, Brian did a great job in my stead.

And so we come to Shanghai Express, the third of our four proto-noirs, and in many ways the least 'noirish' by our strict academic standards. I would like to begin by saying that there is very little point in existing if one can't be as glamorous as Marlene Dietrich in this film, and so we should all just give up now and start eating our weight in ice-cream daily and living in unwashed pyjamas and bedsocks, because, really, what does it matter?

But seriously, folks, there is actually very little in the way of noir attributes to Shanghai Express. It collects together a group of caricatures in the forms of the eponymous train's first-class passengers, more akin to a grouping an Agatha Christie novel than a true noir. These characters were considered hackneyed and one-dimensional even at the time of this film's release - read this review from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1932 if you don't believe me. They are a humorous backdrop to the very simple plot and, if anything, distract from the sense of noir.

The one place in which we find some characteristics that will later define the genre is in Marlene Dietrich's mysterious Shanghai Lily. Her story has been a tragedy up to this point, a string of meaningless lovers and a reputation to boot, travelling up and down the China coast on the whim of men. She lost the love of Clive Brook's Captain Harvey years before and has become an infamous cold-hearted harpy with a glamorous name. Once reunited, the old issue of trust rears its head again.
Where this storyline falls down is that Dietrich is literally so charming, warm and real that we don't for a moment believe all the rumours whispered about her through the train's compartments.

Speaking of compartments brings me to the other noirish aspect of Shanghai Express - the cinematography. Although the story being told is rather melodramatic and not particularly dark, von Sternberg's framing, lighting and sets tell a different story entirely. Starkly-shadowed faces, meetings in compartment doorways and curtained windows, backlit shots of silhouettes in steam and smoke create noir images that hint at darker stories beneath the surface.

In the end, although the film has a [SPOILER] happy ending and there really isn't a lot of noir, or even plot, once again we find Dietrich and von Sternberg laying the path down which hundreds of directors, writers and actors would someday trudge, overcoat collars upturned, cigarettes lit, guns at the ready...

Blahblahblahtoby review

Following only two years after The Blue Angel we are treated to another von Sternberg/Dietrich pairing but this time in America posing as China. As it was an American film the tone is a lot more jovial and quite importantly for some, it was in English.

Again Marlene has her name above the title but this time it is much more deserved. Whilst not entirely about her, she is given a chance to show off her star quality, and the camera loves her throughout. Her performance in a second language is quite remarkable in terms of quality but I think perhaps she is most remembered for the way she looks. Scene after scene passes by with her looking absolutely fabulous, frocks and furs draped around her at all times, ignoring the fact that they are traveling on a cramped train, albeit in first class.

The film itself is rather wonderful, filled with wonderful characters and the quick dialogue we have come to associate with the era and country of production giving the story the required colour and shape. The background actors may just be caricatures of a priest, a proper boarding house madam, an Arab, an old European soldier and an American gambler but they all share similar traits, they are all hypocrites, fake in one way or another, thus serving as a reinforcement of the overall theme; liars cannot prosper and be happy as the falsehoods will inevitably cause harm. Or something like that.

The treatment of Dietrich as Shanghai Lily by von Sternberg is apparently the first time Hollywood used lighting and camerawork to highlight an actor or actress, allowing their personality to come across to the audience in a range of moods and attitudes and all I can say about her is wow. That is sadly what has been left with me from the movie, to a point where I am struggling to divert my attention away from Marlene.

Not too much in the way of noir elements, it’s not sexual pathology as such and more a film of repressed passions, the adventure is there but whilst Doc is the ‘hero’ he doesn’t really deserve the title, as he is quite ineffectual at almost everything. The major noir identifier is that of the femme fatale, Shanghai Lilly is a lady of questionable morals and revels in her reputation; men are obviously led in to temptation in an effort to be near her. Her feminine charms are directly responsible for at least one death in the movie.

This is a fun movie that brings to mind the word 'romp' in a traditional Hollywood sense, driven along by quick-witted characters and a beautiful leading lady. I can’t sing its praises highly enough, for a modern audience it’s extremely accessible and I insist that you all watch it as soon as possible.

I'd stretch to a 7.5, which equates to 1 and a bit thumbs or 3 magic puddings. How about you good people in google reader land? Any thoughts on Shanghai Express? Tune in later today for part 2 in which we review the inimitable Jean Gabin in Pepe Le Moko.


  1. How sexy is the Dietrich? truly stunning. That final image is amazing.

    No worries on missing last weeks post Leah, we will let you off!!

    Keep going guys I am learning so much with this series!!

  2. SL - i know what you mean, the use of light and shadow to such an amazing effect is something else isn't it. from some of the reading i've done i think that that is the shot that is pretty famous from the film/period of film history.