For Reel

The Ship from Shanghai (1930)
January 3, 2014, 4:31 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Charles Brabin
4 Stars
The Ship from ShanghaiThis unusual early talkie from MGM is an irresistible, often horrific melodrama thanks to a disturbing performance from Louis Wolheim. He plays a steward aboard a small ship carrying five upper-class snobs, most notably lovers Howard Vazey (Conrad Nagel) and Dorothy Daley (Kay Johnson). As tensions rise, Wolheim’s hatred of the idle rich comes to the fore as he refuses his passengers food and maintains power through a pistol and the help of a burly, dim-witted cook (Ivan Linow). As with many productions made early in the sound period, the camera is mostly static, however director Charles Brabin has good sense of composition and tends to arrange his characters in the space in dynamic ways. There are a handful of striking, high-contrast shots that seem held-over from the silent era–one late in the picture shows the Dorothy on the floor in what looks like a pit of blackness, lit only by a small lantern on a desk. Wolheim is the film’s biggest pleasure in a role that seems written for Lon Chaney. He begins the picture with sneers and japes and ends in a maniacal frenzy, effectively terrifying both Dorothy and the audience in his attempts to take her to bed. Johnson does well as the damsel even if she seems non-phased by dehydration (when she should be at her most miserable, she declares that she is happy because she has love). Wolheim’s next film would be the blockbuster masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, and his life would be tragically cut short a year later from stomach cancer.

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