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Monday, 9 June 2008

Shanghai Express (1932)

I'm finding it fascinating to see films again in 2008 that I've seen previously either before 2004, when I started seriously investigating classic film, or soon after. I first saw Shanghai Express in 2004 when I was only mildly acquainted with some of the cast. Now I'm much more knowledgeable about many more of them and can appreciate the film on many more fronts than I could back then.

We're in China, a China torn by civil war, and the film looks and feels authentic, especially early on in the Peiping train station with the heat, smoke and local flavour palpable. The train, packed to the rafters in the cattle class carriages with locals and soldiers, is blocked on its way out of the station by crowds of people, brooding chickens and cows tethered to the line. Our attention is focused on the first class carriages, where we meet an exotic ensemble cast travelling from Peiping to Shanghai on the Shanghai Express.

Most notably there's a notorious prostitute called Shanghai Lily, played by Marlene Dietrich. She's what's known in the locality as a coaster, a lady of easy virtue who lives by her wits along the China coast, and she's garnered a lot of fame in doing so. There's an English military doctor, Capt Donald Harvey, played by Clive Brook, who knew Shanghai Lily before she took that name. He know her as Magdalen (incidentally one of Dietrich's real middle names) and was and is heavily in love with her. Now their relationship is past and he's on his way to Shanghai to operate on the governor general. He's far from the only foreigner on the train though.

There's a Frenchman, Major Lenard; a German, Eric Baum; and an American, Sam Salt. There are also a couple more people from England: a priest called Rev Carmichael and an old woman called Mrs Haggerty. They're played respectively by Emile Chautard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant and Louise Closser Hale. Completing the ensemble are a couple of more local characters: Hui Fei and Henry Chang. Hui Fei is another prostitute, played by Anna May Wong. Warner Oland plays Chang, for once not a Chinaman but a halfbreed, a warlord running the local revolution who was born to a Chinese mother and western father.

Dietrich is dynamic, stunningly beautiful and apparently submissive when she chooses to be, but wild, fiery and dangerous otherwise. She's so magnetic that it's impossible not to watch her, in a way that only a few actors ever managed: Cagney and Robinson are notable examples but there aren't many more. I've seen her as far back as 1930 in Morocco and as late as 1958 in Touch of Evil, and it's her precodes that show her in her most smouldering beauty and devastating talent. I've finally picked up Blonde Venus on DVD and The Blue Angel on VHS and they're high on my priority list. Anna May Wong is very watchable also and has a couple of highly powerful scenes but is outclassed here completely by Dietrich.

The various foreigners are solid and memorably characterised: Salt's incessant betting, Mrs Haggerty's dog Waffles and Baum's bizarre spectacles all spring quickly to mind. Oland is better here than possibly anywhere else I've seen him. While he was never a particularly believable Asian (though he was far better than say Bela Lugosi), he's far better as a halfbreed and he plays a superb warlord. Louise Closser Hale is American but plays a very believable English country gentlewoman. I've seen her in a few other movies without registering her presence but I'll watch out for her now.

When I watched this in 2004 I rated it as good. Watching it again now I realise that was a grave injustice. There are various dynamics in play here, solid characterisations throughout and a clever interplay between them. It's also shot very nicely indeed, with some particularly great images, most notably of Miss Marlene and only some benefit from her stunning costumes. I'm not surprised that Lee Garmes won an Oscar for his cinematography, but Josef von Sternberg deserves a lot of credit also. The film plays as a Chinese equivalent of Stagecoach: done as an eastern instead of a western, but done first. This is 1932 after all and Stagecoach didn't come along until 1939.

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