The Shanghai Express (1932)is the fourth film of a series of pictures made by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich. It's a curious and inconsequential-seeming movie that doesn't really succeed on any level. Sternberg was a master of chiaroscuro and hazy sfumato effects -- his actors are haloed with rim-lighting and posed against complex networks of drifting mist and an angular shadow. In The Shanghai Express, the effect is weirdly disconcerting -- the imagery is too stylized to be regarded as conventionally realistic and, yet, not sufficiently stylized to embody the heady decadent abstraction of some of Sternberg's other pictures. As a result, the picture feels caught between two worlds: it's too abstract to be realistic and, yet, too jarringly realistic to maintain successfully a tone of fairy-tale phantasmagoria. In my view, the picture would have been more successful as a silent film -- the dialogue is stiff, stereotyped, and, even, often racist. The beautiful silent star, Anna May Wong looks exotically glamorous, but she has a curiously proletarian voice inflected with a nasal twang -- one expects her to speak softly and with a musical accent, but, instead, her voice is loud and completely American (as one would expect, her parents were second-generation southern Californian Chinese). Wong's brash-sounding American accent is particularly surprising since the film traffics in a number of unusual accents and, in fact, the way people sound to one another is an important plot element in the film. Sternberg's train is never convincingly "train-like" -- it seems like a series of spacious well-lit rooms linked together; the director makes no effect to simulate the rocking motion of the train churning forward over the rails. As a result the picture seems oddly static and pictorially inert. Almost all the action takes place at night and, so, there is no attempt to create any plausible sense of the Chinese cities and landscape through which the train moves. The picture is only 80 minutes long but it has an odd, stuttering pace -- Sternberg stops the action for the dialogue and, since the dialogue is not particularly good, this doesn't help the film.
A motley group of passengers departs Peking on a train running to Shanghai. The passengers include a brusque, loud-mouthed American gambler (played by the croaking Eugene Pallette -- one of the best character actors of the thirties), a couple of high-priced courtesans (Dietrich's Shanghai Lily and Miss Hoo Fay played by Wong), a censorious Protestant minister, a comical French officer, a Germany mystic wearing a fez -- he turns out to be an opium smuggler -- and a stiff, hyper-vigilant British military officer, Captain Harvey. Harvey is played by Clive Booth in a much more buttoned-down manner than his later portrayals of Victor Frankenstein -- in this film, he is a cardboard-figure of an English gentleman. It turns out that Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Harvey were lovers five years before -- she imprudently tested the doctor's love by indulging in "a woman's trick", that is, going with another man to make him jealous. This ended their love affair, although both have kept the torch of unrequited romance flaring in their hearts. (This is notwithstanding Dietrich's famous statement: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." -- She is said to be a "coaster", that is, a woman who "lives on the coast of China by her wits.") China is embroiled in a civil war, a place where "time and life has no value." A sinister Eurasian, played by Warner Olund, turns out to be a war-lord. He has the train stopped in the middle of nowhere to interrogate and torture its inhabitants. Olund, in a role that is pretty obviously a racist fantasy, is the cruel, inscrutable Fu Manchu -- worse, however, because he has "mixed blood." He brands the German with a red hot iron, rapes Anna May Wong, and, then, threatens to put out Clive Brooks' eyes. Dietrich offers herself to Olund to save her lover, who remains conspicuously cold to her. (Of course, Harvey thinks Shanghai Lily is seducing the War Lord out of sheer, sexual depravity.) Wong revenges herself on the War Lord by stabbing him to death. This murder seemingly solves everyone's problems and the train proceeds to Shanghai where Dietrich and Clive Brooks' Dr. Harvey express their love for one another and kiss in the train station. There are lots of puzzling features in the film -- Dietrich wears a fish-net veil with black spots over her face through much of the picture and her eyes flicker back and forth; at times, it looks as if she's about to have a seizure -- she seems to be greedily surveying Dr. Harvey's face and figure, but the effect is like nystagmus: it's vertigo inducing to watch her eyes so obviously unfocused and flitting about. And, indeed, there's no real chemistry at all between Dietrich and Brook -- they seem completely mismatched as lovers. The final sequence with its strange, stuttering rhythm exemplifies the disconnect between the two. Harvey, standing ramrod straight, looks at Dietrich and mutters: "How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you here?" the camera cuts from a two-shot showing the lovers to a crowded, swarming train station. In a close shot, Dietrich's eyes flutter about in a dizzying way and she says incomprehensibly: "why there's no one here but you and I." The film cuts to the crowded train station, a room holding about a hundred closely packed extras. Then, we see Dietrich begin to kiss Dr. Harvey while she mouths: "But many lovers come to the railway station to kiss without being observed." The embrace fades into dissolve showing the big crowds of people in the station. A couple of shots of the station crowd from different angles are superimposed upon the embracing lovers. None of these images is particularly persuasive and the climactic clinch is not dramatic and unconvincing -- particularly because it is simply difficult to see, the two lovers slowly vanishing into a tapestry of figures, a documentary shot that looks like a southern California bus station.