“When I needed your faith, you withheld it; and now, when I don’t need it, and don’t deserve it, you give it to me.”
A notorious prostitute named Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) runs into her former flame (Clive Brook) while traveling on a train from Peking to Shanghai. When a revolutionary (Warner Oland) and his men commandeer the train and hold Owen hostage, Dietrich realizes she can intervene to save his life — but will this be enough to win back his love?
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this von Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration (their fourth together) as an “absurd but delectable bit of pulp perversity” full of “sin, sadism and sex” — yet despite its risque themes, the story itself remains oddly forgettable. The primary problem is that we never quite believe someone like Shanghai Lily would fall for someone like Clive Brook (!), whose romantic allure leaves much to be desired; their romantic dilemma (unlike, say, that of star-crossed lovers Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca) never strikes one as particularly convincing or compelling. Peary astutely notes that “like other Dietrich women” (such as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel), Lily “doesn’t even attempt to defend her actions — if [Owen] doesn’t have faith in her, that’s his problem” — yet neither Dietrich’s character, nor that of beautiful Anna May Wong as her sultry companion, are fleshed out enough for us to become invested in their intriguing dilemma as “fallen” women in a male-dominated world. What lingers longest in one’s memory about Shanghai Express (note the clever double-entendre title) is Lee Garmes’ Oscar-winning “superb cinematography”, which includes several breathtaking “close-ups of Dietrich, particularly when she’s smoking against the door in the train.”
P.S. Peary nominates Dietrich’s performance for an Alternate Oscar as best actress of the year.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Lee Garmes’ Oscar-winning cinematography
Yes, simply as one of von Sternberg’s most beloved films (though I’m not a fan).
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)