Films like SHANGHAI EXPRESS now filed under the subject heading of Pre-Code Hollywood, were nevertheless simple stories that were more honest, open about morals and sex, about language and approach, about almost everything. They did not know they were “illicit” until they were labeled as such by puritanical lawmakers, who put the kibosh on freedom of expression and the spotlight on censorship. This very honesty, when viewed today, washes over us like refreshing water over our watching eyes. For me, Pre-Code movies carry an added luster of truth and realism with them. They don’t disguise the truth of the human condition—they expose it.
This is a large part of the attractiveness of SHANGHAI EXPRESS, the legendary Josef von Sternberg’s tense, taut, honest tale of a parade of characters crossing China on a train.
An odd lot of disparate personalities are on the cusp of becoming heroes without the knowing that they have it in them; gunrunners and renegades, ladies of the evening and thieves, an old lady and her dog, a man with a checkered past, to name a few.
The look of this movie is nothing short of glorious; its cinematography has been lovingly restored to rich, almost impossibly exotic blacks-and-whites. Its deep shadows and frequent tricks of light invite the watcher in instantly, its camera riding you in to its very center, depositing you inside the action and the minds of its characters, bypassing tiresome exposition. There is a bang and the journey—the train’s and its riders’ and yours—begins. At first, when the train’s whistle shouts too long, too loudly, we get annoyed—the noise goes on forever—then, we realize it alarms us of danger that is to come. One by one, each character is delineated in von Sternberg’s trademark, no-nonsense way, so that when trouble does come, we know (or think we know) how each person will act and react. Von Sternberg follows his natural instinct to avoid the filmmaker’s dictum to show, not tell. He steers clear in his films of utilizing cornball or maudlin shots to woo and unspool you. “This is the situation,” he says, “These are the people in it. Let’s get that out of the way and take it from there.”
Von Sternberg’s great triumph in SHANGHAI EXPRESS is his handling and presentation of the indelible Marlene Dietrich. Her Shanghai Lily is part of an ensemble cast but she commandeers the proceedings straight off the bat. You leave the theater believing she was the star, because her performance and von Sternberg’s attention on her makes it so.
Dietrich here is a marvel. When the action threatens to sometimes go static, her undulating aura enlivens it with extraterrestrial energy and awe. What a fine world her face is, a face beyond beauty. Von Sternberg enwreaths it in feathers, in furs, in silver brooches and smoke; the smoke from her defiant cigarette, the smoke issued from the imperiled train. Dietrich’s hair is soft gold– special effects send seductive breezes through it, whereas other actors standing right next to her remain statues, untouched by the same gods who watch over her. Tough and tender but mostly tough, we are drawn to her as we would be to a Holy Cross. There is a haptic quality to Dietrich. “Come closer. Touch me,” she seems to say, yet when you reach out to touch her, she is there and not there, like air or a mirage. She is like a garden no one gets to see.
While it is clear from the start that she and her cohort, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) are women of questionable morality, she, a prostitute and thief, turns out to be possessed of morals more uncompromising than anyone else on the train. Her spirit shines profoundly in this film. Dietrich lights up a drab set, rescues fellow actors’ drab performances simply by standing next to them. The handsome, if sadly wooden Clive Brook, the always watchable Warner Oland (who achieved fame in the Charlie Chan movies), the genuinely provocative Anna May Wong, the venerable actress of stage and screen, Louise Closser Hale—all performers bring their life’s skills into play and yet all become mere window dressing when pitted against la Dietrich.
She was the ultimate star, glamorous and magnetic. Her accent is instantly recognizable — as creamy as milk chocolate, as hard as iron. The ever-expressive Dietrich eyes dart and parry, whether aimed at her friends or at foes; they show no mercy. You belong to them, whether you want to or not—and of course you do.
Von Sternberg took a chubby girl from Berlin and made her immortal. He “invented” her. He is part of how Dietrich was made.
In Maximilian Schell’s fascinating, must-see documentary MARLENE (1984), the actress has been crippled by old age and refuses to have her face seen on camera. She admits that what we were seeing when we watched her and her movies was composed by make-up and mirrors, smoke and mirrors, mere illusions. She even calls her films “just a bunch of kitsch, worthless kitsch.” What a sorrow that this creature, beautiful inside and out, believed her movies never soared, for even in the least of them, she lent such height, such class, such exaltation to every move she made, every word she spoke, every seductive glance she cast, that her spell is sure to endure as long as movies are shown.
She was never not brave—a radiant fearlessness fills her every atom. ‘Unflinching’ best describes Dietrich. Even off screen Dietrich had balls, her USO tours during WWII often took her straight into the thick of battle where she dodged bullets and shells. Dietrich dressed and tended the wounded, and still found time to sing and dance “for the boys.”
The iconic image of Dietrich’s face toward the end of SHANGHAI EXPRESS, bathed in pure light, world-weary cigarette in hand, as she contemplates her fate, is one for the ages. It is in this shot that the Dietrich persona was born. She lived in this image for the rest of her career, her face later morphing into a magnificent mask. This ending scene alone is worth the price of admission. A good story awaits you when you see SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Better than that, Marlene Dietrich waits for you.