(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.
(On TV, June 2018) Much has been written and said about Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and nearly all of it supports the assertion that it is a late film-noir classic. I certainly won’t dispute the critical consensus: From its landmark first extended shot, Touch of Evil is the work of a master filmmaker, deftly guiding us through a familiar plot with enough energy and precision to make it look at fresh and new. By the late fifties, film noir was growing aware of its own stylized approach, and Welles had ballooned up to his late-day persona. Both are used effectively, with Welles delivering plenty of visual style as a director, while turning in a remarkably disquieting performance as a deeply corrupt police officer. The film effectively uses actors such as Marlene Dietrich, but somehow convinced itself that Charlton Heston would make a convincing Mexican under layers of makeup. This misstep stands out but does not really damage the film, which is good enough to stand on its own. The sense of palpable desperation certainly associates Touch of Evil with prototypical film noir—it remains a must see for fans of the genre.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) I haven’t watched that many movies starring Marlene Dietrich yet, but Witness for the Prosecution is the first when I really get what Dietrich was about—it certainly helps that it flashes back to a cabaret sequence. Looking spectacular in her mid-fifties, she feels actively dangerous as the titular witness willing to do what it takes to achieve what she wants. Not that she’s the sole highlight of the film—Charles Laughton is incredibly likable as a barrister taking on a difficult case and never quite certain of everyone’s motives. The script, adapted from an Agatha Christie short story, is nicely paced to introduce the characters before getting down to the business of thrills and unexpected plot twists. Witness for the Prosecution does amount to a satisfying film, perhaps too brightly lit as a court drama to be pure film noir but certainly willing to get its inspiration from the depths of human cruelty. If director Billy Wilder has made a bad movie, I haven’t yet seen it.