“We’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.”
These few words define the parameters of Shanghai Express (1932), a film about a Dangerous Time And Place where characters have little control over anything, namely rail travel from Peking to Shanghai.
The word express in the film title is a bit of sneering irony; this is not a fast, efficient train. In an early scene, the train is delayed by livestock on the track. En route to Shanghai, the train is stopped by government agents, then is later held up by violent rebels.
Naturally, there are a variety of passengers on this train, including Shanghai Lily, (Marlene Dietrich), a woman famous for her, uh, romances. She shares a train compartment with Anna May Wong, a no-nonsense woman of ethereal beauty and sadness.
They’re crammed together on the train: a narrow, confined space where there’s no avoiding people you don’t like. This creates claustrophobic and tense scenes, along with a sense of Doom.
Someone on this train will not survive the trip.
Shanghai Express gives us romance and intrigue, but it mostly gives us opportunity to worship Dietrich. We know this by the way the studio lighting kisses her features.
Look at the above photo. In this scene, Dietrich is shaken by an argument with the annoying Clive Brook. She leans against a wall and, with quivering hands, smokes a cigarette as if it were a religious rite.
It’s a self-indulgent shot, really, meant to impress us with Dietrich’s glowing allure. Which it does. Dietrich is nothing if not charismatic, and as we gaze at her Inner Pain, we admire how light immortalizes it.
However, the story itself isn’t the stuff of a Great Film. The script is simple and clichéd, even for 1932. What makes the film memorable is its love affair – and not the one you might think.
“[W]hile few films are more romantic than Shanghai Express,” writes Imogen Sara Smith, “the real romance is between Dietrich and the camera, not Dietrich and her leading man.”¹
For l’affair de camera, we can thank director Josef von Sternberg.
The partnership between von Sternberg and Dietrich began in Berlin, in the late 1920s, with the film The Blue Angel. Shortly after, they went to Paramount Studios in Hollywood and made six films between 1930 and 1935. (Much has been written about their relationship, which we won’t get into here.)
Shanghai Express is the third film in the Paramount collaboration. According to The Telegraph, the film “grossed half its studio’s entire earnings for 1932”.²
No wonder. von Sternberg’s exotic world, where the usual rules have no relevance, is almost the stuff of science fiction. Naturally, Dietrich is Queen of this strange world, glorified by light and set apart from everyone else.
“There’s no doubt that von Sternberg knew cinematography inside out,” writes Farran Smith Nehme, “so much so that the American Society of Cinematographers admitted him to their ranks, a rare honor for a director.”³ Nehme quotes cinematographer James Wong Howe, who said von Sternberg was the only director he worked with4 who knew how to light a set.
Incidentally, Shanghai Express won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Picture and Director.
Of course, much credit must be given to Dietrich herself, who is utterly mesmerizing. Does this film have flaws? Yes. Should you drop everything to watch it? Absolutely.
¹Mistress of Ceremonies by Imogen Sara Smith. (Essay from Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood Blu-ray set, 2018, pp. 27-28.)
²The Telegraph. (Retrieved September 20, 2018.) Josef von Sternberg: The Man Who Made Marlene Sparkle.
³Where Credit is Due by Farran Smith Nehme. (Essay from Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood Blu-ray set, 2018, p. 64.)
4Ibid. The project Howe and von Sternberg worked on was never completed.
Shanghai Express: starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Written by Jules Furthman. Paramount Publix Corporation, 1932, B&W, 82 mins.