For Reel

Shanghai Express (1932)
March 26, 2011, 6:24 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Josef von Sternberg

As Paramount’s answer to Garbo, Marlene Dietrich’s star rose quickly in the early 1930s through her six collaborations with the Austrian-born Josef von Sternberg. In Shanghai Express, Dietrich plays the memorably named Shanghai Lily, described to be a “woman who lives by her wits along the China cost”. Although notorious for bleeding men dry, curiously she travels alongside a fellow woman “coaster”, and in several scenes a romantic relationship seems to be implied (in fact, if you interpret the film as being one in which Lily serves merely as a manipulative lesbian, the ending possesses a dark bite that cooly demonstrates the submissiveness of men to powerful women). Most memorable about the film – which is a fairly ordinary train picture – is its lush cinematography. The great Lee Garmes is credited as the director of photography, however von Sternberg’s aesthetic was always distinctly his own, with an unique capacity to produce unearthly angelic close-ups. Lit by von Sternberg, Dietrich’s beauty is incomparable.

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