An infamous woman reunites with a former lover while on a train to Shanghai, but an ongoing revolution gets in the way of their romance.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Written by Jules Furthman
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong,
Warner Oland, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant,
Louise Closser Hale, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Emile Chautard
Based on the short story by Harry Hervey
Oscar Wins - Best Cinematography
Oscar Nominations - Best Picture, Best Director
Getting ahold of this movie has been a labor from hell. It is not streaming anywhere, not even to rent, and finding a physical copy is next to impossible. It was just plain luck that I stumbled onto a used DVD copy, and now I can stop looking. It's a damn shame it isn't widely available, because Shanghai Express is a really good movie. It's a pre-code war drama ahead of its time; a definite trailblazer of things to come. It does feature some problematic yellowface that holds the film back today, but Warner Oland made a career out of that unfortunate stereotype with his Charlie Chan series. It's easy to draw a line now, but this was 1932, when this film was considerably tamer than some others. Regardless, in other respects, the film has aged quite well and acts as a great vehicle for Marlene Dietrich to emerge as one of the first global movie stars.
The film takes place during the Chinese Revolution of the 1930s and follows a number of standout characters who are traveling on a train from Peking to Shanghai. Our heroine is Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), an infamous lady of the night who runs into her old boyfriend Captain Harvey (Brook). Clearly, the two still have feelings for one another, though there is also a great deal of resentment. Halfway to Shanghai, the train is stopped by Chinese revolutionaries led by the sinister and devious warlord Chang (Oland). Now, we turn from romance to thriller as Chang tries to determine which of the passengers would make the best hostage for him to barter with. The performances are all great, the characters are well-written, and the story is pretty tense.
The worst thing about Shanghai Express is how difficult it is to find. If you somehow stumble onto a copy, pick it up. It's worth it. The film is a gem of early cinema and clearly influenced so many future films like it. It's one of those films that deserves to exist beyond the 1930s.