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USA 1932
Directed by
Josef von Sternberg
82 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Shanghai Express

Although as an adventure story, even as a romance, Shanghai Express is,by today’s standards a creakily old fashioned affair, one can appreciate von Sternberg’s directorial flair and there are times when it impresses visually, all of which involve Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious woman of easy morals who at the time of a civil war in China is travelling from Peking to Shanghai aboard the titular train in the company of assorted travelers one of whom is a former lover, army surgeon Captain Donald 'Doc' Harvey (Clive Brook).

The plot contrives to bring together an assortment of types, a prim boarding house proprietoress; a Christian missionary; a German opium smuggler; a disgraced French major; an American gambler (Eugene Pallette); an enigmatic Chinese “coaster” or courtesan, Hui Fei; and a Eurasian businessman (Warner Oland), the latter who turns out to be the ruthless leader of the rebel forces.  

There’s not much in the yarn to raise one’s pulse, indeed the script by Jules Furthman and an uncredited Howard Hawks mainly concentrates on the dynamics between the characters exposing their various conflicting differences (although the most memorable character is the largely silent Hui Fei played by Anna May Wong). This is in many ways typical enough of many train movies from Hitchcock to Agatha Christie but where von Sternberg makes his mark is in his focus on Dietrich (this is one of seven films he made with her).

Here the skill of cinematographer Lee Garmes is particularly successful in highlighting the actress in close-up  in such a way as to give her a transcendent aura although the same cannot be said for Brooks who remains throughout a stodgy stiff upper lip British military type who utters lines of offhand dialogue worthy of Noël Coward but with not a scintilla of evidence as to why Dietrich’s Magdalen would be so besotted with him.

Available from: Shock Entertainment




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