Shanghai Express (1932)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Shanghai Express</strong> (1932)

(On Cable TV, July 2018) There’s a remarkable amount of exoticism on display in Shanghai Express, which follows a few characters are they board a train from Pekin to Shanghai and get caught up in the Chinese civil war. Trains are good for taking characters a long way while remaining in manageable locations, and so the movie does feel far more expansive than its limited sets suggest. (Although there is one notable outdoors sequence showing the train leaving Pekin.)  Notably helmed by Josef von Sternberg before the Hays Code crackdown began, Shanghai Express features a courtesan as heroine, opium dealing, forced sex, civil war dealings and one big murder. Marlene Dietrich is spectacular as the morally compromised “Shanghai Lily”, with a then-rare leading role for Asian-American performer Anna May Wong. While the first half of the film is a bit melodramatic and seems content to see its ensemble cast just chat away, the film gets far more interesting as a thriller once the train is stopped by government forces and the characters are kicked out of their comfortable berths. Great cinematography helps propel a morally ambiguous subject matter that still feels decently modern. It wraps up satisfyingly, which is true for the film as a whole: Made in 1932 but almost just as interesting today, Shanghai Express is a welcome reminder that the basics of cinema were all understood even as early as the early thirties.

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