On a train barreling through Civil-War-torn China, a country thick with spies, backstabbing and danger, a great cinematic beauty emerges into her limelight. To witness this entrance is an ex-lover, the dashing Captain ‘Doc’ Harvey (Clive Brook). Line after line of verbal foreplay could roll forever without end until she moves to check mate – ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly’.
Why this isn’t the title, I’ll never know.
Marlene Dietrich won world renown as a Blue Angel seductress, a child-like femme fatale naive about her destructive capabilities. But in Shanghai Express, we are introduced to a mature woman. Lily does not demand attention, she deserves it in her peacock-like opulence. Her constantly roaming eyes betray her restlessness. And her speech pattern teases unmentioned experiences.
The decade of Orient adventures Lily enjoyed, of which we are left only to imagine, amount to nothing in comparison to her romance with the affectionately named Doc. Far away from the stale will they, won’t they of countless rom-coms, Shanghai Express is a ‘will they again?’. A Casablanca-esque romance over a decade before Bogart and Bergman would find an old flame still burning.
But Shanghai Express is not a monogamous romance, it is a love triangle. Dietrich is the heart of the matter, adored on camera by Doc, and off camera by Director Josef Von Sternberg. The duo met during the making of The Blue Angel, an event which shot both to public acclaim as they began a love affair in secrecy. It would be an apt case of production reflecting product had Sternberg let her go, instead of preserving her in a multitude of collaborations.
Sternberg’s pernickety nature led to his commandeering the composition of this sumptuous piece, subsequently securing cinematographer Lee Garmes’ Academy Award. Sternberg’s eye evidently reveals his deep affection for Dietrich; the train set is claustrophobic in her grand presence, the lighting elegantly caresses her, and each elegant action is given centre stage.
But Sternberg’s burning adoration for Dietrich leaves the support cold.
A suitably diverse set of characters featuring a cranky old woman, a morally uptight doctor, and an inscrutable French General, fails to forge a empathetic connection or comic relief. They struggle with clunky dialogue announcing their names awkwardly and backgrounds unnaturally to the point of becoming an annoyance. Before the adventure truly starts, it becomes apparent the train is filled with the type of passengers other commuters avoid by placing bags on empty seats.
The strange differing levels of Sternberg’s interest cause Shanghai Express to be a narrative equivalent of soft focus. The centre is clear and intense, the outer edges blurred. The romance holds attention, but the threat of Civil War and spies is nebulous. And with few characters to care for outside the centre, danger plummets to zero.
Shanghai Express is not the greatest of romantic films, nor a cinematic landmark. It is a vehicle, literally and figuratively, for Dietrich. A capsule containing a spark of a Golden Age icon, reminding audiences how and why she captured the hearts of a cinema going public and has remained a mythic figure. Even if she protests.
Lilly wields an almost impenetrable facade of equanimity. The arrival of an ex-lover, a civil war, and being held prisoner do not shake her to the core. But when Doc is held as a bargaining chip in a game of spy exchange, Lily slinks away to the darkness. But a single ray of light betrays a moral act she has never performed before – Praying.