Combustible Celluloid
Get the Poster
Own it:
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant, Louise Closser Hale, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Emile Chautard
Written by: Jules Furthman, based on a story by Harry Hervey
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 80
Date: 02/02/1932

Shanghai Express (1932)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Lily's Pad

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made seven films together, and some believe that neither of them made anything as good separately. I can't personally vouch for that, not having seen a most of these films, but I can say that Shanghai Express is an excellent film.

Shanghai Express is the fourth of the seven. It concerns a prostitute named Shanghai Lily and a throng of other characters traveling on a train from Peking to Shanghai during a Chinese civil war. One of the characters is an English military doctor who was a former love of Lily's. The train must stop several times, if not for animals blocking the tracks, then for soldiers to search the train for rebel spies. At one point, a spy captures them and holds the doctor hostage. Lily must then decide whether to take action or save herself.

Both Shanghai Lily and Marlene Dietrich herself were marvelous creations. In this movie, she is not called a "prostitute," but rather a "woman who lives by her wits." And Dietrich has plenty of those. She's lovely, flirtatious and very dangerous. She's like that snake crawling across Nastassja Kinski's body in that famous photo, very slinky, daring you to touch, but deadly. All the men in the movie cast an eye her way, and her legend is built up. At one point, a priest tells the doctor about how he's just spent the last several weeks treating one of Lily's "victims."

Although Sternberg was working on a sound stage, he makes China seem claustrophobic, dirty and exotic. Most other studio films of this period were simply still trying to accommodate the primitive sound equipment. Sternberg's sets, such as the train and the Chinese spy's headquarters, are dressed in interesting exotic ways, but humble, not lavish. The film feels real, not sanitized. The imagination is key, and the movie has lots of eye candy.

I had a bit of trouble with the movie's ending. It seemed a little rushed, a little false. But Shanghai Express is a fine entertainment, gorgeous, exotic, and sensual.

Movies Unlimtied