Caught TCM's latest screening of Shanghai Express last night, and enjoyed it very much. Sure, it's pretty creaky by today's standards, but the uber-charismatic performance by Marlene Dietrich, plus a mostly solid supporting cast and extremely atmospheric direction by Dietrich's mentor Josef Von Sternburg make it a facinating, if a bit stiff and kinda un-PC-ish, view.
In this film, her fourth and the fourth of seven she did with Von Sternburg, Dietrich plays "Shanghai Lily", an notorious "coaster", or lady of (shall we say) dubious moral character, who takes the train from Peking to Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War era, accompanied by her exotic traveling companion Hui Fei (played by Anna May Wong). She encounters a cast of characters on the train, including an ailing German man, a fundamentalist preacher-type, a prissy old lady, a ne'er-do-well gambler type (played by Eugene Pallette, who was Friar Tuck in Errol Flynn's Adventures of Robin Hood), a military doctor who just happens to be the man Lily fell in love with and jilted several years prior, and Henry Chang (Warner (Charlie Chan) Oland), who happens to be a Chinese revolutionary warlord traveling incognito. The train is barely underway when it is stopped by Chinese troops, and a Chinese man is taken off the train and arrested. Turns out it's Chang's right hand man, and he contrives to have the train boarded and taken captive at the next stop, so he can get a hostage and get his lieutenant back. Chang's a little lonely and wants some female company, but is rebuffed by first Hui Fei, then Lily- and when he attempts to force himself on her, the doctor breaks in and slugs him one. Chang then takes the doctor hostage and has Hui Fei brought to him, where he rapes her. The Brits and Chinese governments back down and return his man the next day, but there's one little problem- Chang doesn't want to return the doctor in one piece; he intends to blind him first for the affront he committed to his person. Lil comes back and offers to go away with him, if she'll let her true love go safely. Of course, she doesn't wish the doctor to know, so this causes him to bitterly come to believe that she has rejected him yet again. The rest of the film pretty much deals with the resolution of all these plot threads, including some classic camera shots of Dietrich and a great scene in which Hui Fei gets a measure of payback.
Dietrich is, of course, languidly excellent, and lovingly photographed by Von Sternburg. Wong is mesmerizing, despite being in the background a lot, as Hui Fei. She had such charisma, and in more enlightened times would have been a major star. Oland is all underplayed, reserved malevolence, and seeing him in that part was a bit surprising. I'm more used to seeing him in good guy roles, such as Charlie Chan, although I do remember him as the less-than-benevolent doctor/rival of Henry Hull in Werewolf of London. The subplot with the Bible-thumping Reverend Carmichael started out as another clichéd portrayal of an intensely judgemental religious nut, but then took a surprising left turn, actually making the Reverend a more sympathetic and, conversely, righteous character before movie's end. The film's biggest liability to me, besides the staginess and slow pace, was the wooden performance of Clive Brook as Dietrich's doctor and former lover. He was all veddy stiff-upper-lip British uppercrust, you know, and couldn't even get angry in a convincing fashion. Half the time, even when Lily was being threatened by Chang, he looked as if he was wondering when his next polo match was.
I've yet to see a Dietrich film yet that I've disliked, and I really wish TCM would try to assemble an evening of films featuring Anna May Wong. Hell, I'd watch! If you get a chance, you should check this film out. It's a definite time-capsule film, well worth the effort. One unintended side effect this film had on me- I've had that old Rod Stewart song "Every Picture Tells a Story" in my head all day, with its line "Shanghai Lil never used the pill". Sigh.