So by 1932 Josef von Sternberg (who we last saw in the silent era some time ago) was deep into his association with Marlene Dietrich. I’ve seen a couple of their other films, The Blue Angel and The Scarlet Empress, neither of which actually impressed me that much—which is why I was kind of surprised by how much I liked Sternberg’s silent films—and I can’t say I was overly enthused by this either. Here she’s Shanghai Lily, a “coaster”, the “polite” term for a woman who makes her way up and down the coast of China by relying on her, well, feminine charms; she’s a passenger on the Shanghai Express, and her fellow travellers are scandalised by her presence, her reputation having already travelled ahead of her. One of her fellow travellers turns out to be a former lover to boot. And, being China in 1931, there’s a little problem of civil war in the background too. (That the villain of the film proves not only to be a Eurasian half-caste but a revolutionary leader rather clearly highlights the political sympathies at work here.) I presume the Japanese invasion of Manchuria was a little too recent for it to be worked in as well. So obviously it’s not bad conceptually, the setting offers much potential… why didn’t I like the film more? I don’t know, but something seemed “off” and I’m not sure what… maybe it’s a certain dullness of the characters, maybe a kind of dryness about the melodramatics… maybe it’s the romance. I’ve read a few criticisms of Clive Brook as the male lead that are hard to fully deny, though I’d also imagine the stiffness he presents is essentially that of his somewhat damaged character. Although even taking that into account it’s hard to entirely understand what Shanghai Lily ever saw in her crusty British military man. And vice versa, it should be said. There’s a certain amount of pre-Code sexiness going on, but on the whole I didn’t care for this too much.
Shanghai Express (1932)