It is 1931 and the Shanghai Express is about to depart from Peking (as it was in those days) but whether it will reach Shanghai in three days without incident is another matter. The country is in the grip of civil war (the film was based on an actual incident that occurred in 1923, during the Warlord Era).
Among the passengers is the glamorous but notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). She is described as a “coaster” - a woman who survives by her wits on the coastal fringes of China. She is of course a courtesan. She is sharing a compartment with the equally glamorous Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a Chinese woman who is also, we assume, a prostitute (although making too many assumptions about characters can be dangerous in this film).
The other western passengers include a German coal merchant, an American gambler, a French officer, a half-Chinese man named Chang (played by Warner Oland, yes Charlie Chan) an elderly hyper-respectable American lady with her little dog and a missionary. The elderly American lady and the missionary are shocked by the presence of immoral women like Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei on the train. Most of the passengers have some secret which eventually they will be forced to reveal.
It’s almost superfluous to say that Dietrich looks ravishing. Her movies with von Sternberg were very much celebrations of her beauty, and her exotic allure. Her performance is excellent but it’s her status as a visual icon that matters.
Clive Brook is OK although perhaps a bit too stiff for us to believe that Shanghai Lily could have once lost her heart to him. Anna May Wong is very good as the rather mysterious Hui Fei.
Warner Oland is extremely good, good enough to have stolen the picture except that nobody could steal this picture from Marlene Dietrich.
There is certainly a thriller plot here and had this movie been made by anyone else that would have been the core of the movie. But this is a von Sternberg movie and the thriller plot is merely incidental. It only matters insofar as it tells us something very important about Shanghai Lily. This is a love story. That is the only plot element that matters at all. The preacher at one stage remarks that love without faith is like religion without faith — worthless. That’s all you need to know to understand the movie.
Universal’s DVD release offers an extremely good transfer without any extras.
I’ve also recently reviewed two more of the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies, The Devil is a Woman and The Scarlet Empress.
Shanghai Express was a major commercial success. Although both critics and audiences would later turn against von Sternberg his films became ever more extreme exercises in style at this stage the von Sternberg-Dietrich partnership was riding high. If you haven’t seen any of these movies Shanghai Express is probably the best place to start. It’s still very much a movie that is all about style but it has a slightly stronger plot than the others and it has some suspense and even some action.
Do not however make the mistake of thinking this is another thriller-on-a-train movie. If you do you’ll be perplexed by the movie’s structure. That’s not what this movie is about. Don’t worry about the plot. It’s totally unimportant. It’s the visual brilliance of von Sternberg and the iconic presence of Marlene Dietrich that make this movie a masterpiece. Very highly recommended.