“We’re in China now . . . where time and life have no value.”
China is in the throes of civil war. The Shanghai Express, departing from Beijing, includes a Chinese rebel who is taken by nationalists; the rebels halt the train mid-run to determine which of the passengers would make the best hostage to exchange for their kidnapped comrade. This is Captain Donald Harvey, a medical doctor en route to performing surgery on a government official. Rebel leader Chang wants the woman who is in love with Harvey, the fabulous Shanghai Lily, a “coaster” who “lives by her wits”—true enough; but also an upward anatomical displacement. After the hostage exchange, Chang tells Lily he will blind her former lover; she pledges herself to Chang in order to spare Harvey. When Chang is killed and Lily returns to the train, bull-headed Harvey cannot see the depth of her love for him; he cannot penetrate the appearance that Lily chose Chang over him. Until the (slow-in-coming) happy ending, Harvey doesn’t muster faith in Lily so their relationship can have a second chance.
Lee Garmes’s Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography, a symphony of light and shadow, is the principal asset of Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, the fourth of his seven collaborations with star Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich and Clive Brook, who plays Harvey, have a legendary exchange onboard the train. “Married?” Harvey asks. “No. It has taken more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
But the story is trite; much of the treatment, conventional. I may be courting heresy in finding Shanghai Express, the only Sternberg-Dietrich to be Oscar-nominated as best picture, mediocre—the weakest in the series.
Brook is good as “Doc” Harvey; Warner Oland, even better as Chang. Dietrich’s eyes too merrily dance about.