U.S., 1932, 80 min, 4K DCP, Dir. Josef von Sternberg, Not Rated, Universal Pictures
"A completely personal vision that nevertheless struck a reverberating chord with a public desperate to escape the darkest days of the Depression for a world of fantasy and romance, exoticism and danger. This is Sternberg's most resonant film, and one that I doubt you'll forget. All aboard, then, for the Shanghai Express!" – W.W. Dixon, Senses of Cinema
"It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily," intones La Dietrich to her former one-true-love. Unless you were around in the early 1930s, chances are you've not had the pleasure of watching the fourth of seven Josef von Sternberg – Marlene Dietrich collaborations in all its glorious black-and-white chiaroscuro splendor. More action-oriented than their other pairings, this 1932 production is one of the most elegantly styled. The setting, a broken-down train commandeered by revolutionaries on its way to Shanghai, becomes a maze of soft shadows and shifting textures, through which the characters wander in a philosophical quest for something – anything – solid. The screenplay by Jules Furthman, and an uncredited Howard Hawks, has a quality of wisecracking wit unusual in Sternberg's films: when someone asks Dietrich why she's going to Shanghai, she retorts, "To buy a hat." Shanghai Express was the biggest financial success of the fabled Dietrich-Sternberg tandem and the highest grossing film of its year, surpassing MGM's Grand Hotel. Nothing succeeds like success. The film won Lee Garmes the Oscar for Best Cinematography, though Dietrich claimed Sternberg was responsible for most of it. Sternberg was himself responsible for the idea that the icon of female seduction he constructed was a refiguration of his masculine self in a female body. "I am Miss Dietrich – Miss Dietrich is me," he declared to Peter Bogdanovich. And Miss Dietrich agreed it was true. Hooray for Hollywood!
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