Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenwriter: Jules Furthman
By Roderick Heath
Josef von Sternberg’s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich perhaps come closest of all the products of classic Hollywood film to embodying an oft-conjured pop-art fantasia of what popular cinema once was like. Theirs was a cinematic world of glamour-touched amazons blazing in photogenic glory against backdrops that persist amidst dreamlike textures and expressionist shadows, a world forged on soundstages as Sternberg rejected realism in cinema in favour of generating his own, stylised pocket universes and exalting the notion that cinema was above all a foundry of dreams for a dull and seamy world gripped by Depression and war and other chaotic turns. The sort of thing more recent filmmakers and pop stars try to create pastiches of when referring back to that era’s cinema. Dietrich was the fetishised linchpin, the preeminent and eternal exemplar of Sternberg’s actress-sphinxes, transformed through both filmmaking technique and an array of carefully worked narratives into a confluence of female archetypes that blur the feminine illusion and the cinematic kind and merely become everything alluring and untouchable. Sternberg discovered Dietrich whilst making a sojourn to Germany to recover from commercial disappointments in Hollywood. Their first collaboration The Blue Angel (1930), was a variation on one of Sternberg’s favourite themes, of a man destroyed by his own obsessive streak, but this time with heavy emphasis on the saucy, amoral seductress who almost incidentally breaks down a cultured professor.
Dietrich and Sternberg’s first film in Hollywood, Morocco (1930), partly inverted that template, casting Dietrich as a nightclub performer who eventually discovers the mortifying bliss of selfless passion. Lucky perhaps for Dietrich and Sternberg that Morocco came out in America before The Blue Angel, establishing Dietrich not as a femme fatale but a romantic hiding within a sensual cynic, essentially the persona that would drive the next thirty years of her career. By the time of The Scarlet Empress (1934) Sternberg was charting the ironic shifts of the collaboration and their off-screen relationship, the gawking naïf eventually replaced by the imperious, cuckolding hedonist, and finally the all-sweeping conqueror who can only be regarded in awe and fear. Shanghai Express was Sternberg and Dietrich’s fourth film together, in a string of movies that moved purposefully between intensely imagined far-flung locales. It also represents another stream within Sternberg’s oeuvre, forming the first part of a loose quadrilogy that could be described as Sternberg’s Orientalist phase, followed by The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Macao (1952), and the actually made-in-Japan Anatahan (1953). Something in Sternberg’s imagination was set loose by such settings. Undoubtedly, this was partly sparked by proximity to exotic aesthetics and the promise of different ethical and cultural prisms, both things he was ineffably fascinated by in his ongoing rebellion against tepid mainstream aesthetics and mores, just before both public taste and Hollywood regimes would turn against what he was doing.
Sternberg, despite his mock-aristocratic airs and appended “von”, had come up the hard way, both as an Austrian Jewish immigrant and a Hollywood player. Sternberg was born out of wedlock in a Vienna to which he remained permanently, nostalgically attached, scion to a bullying father who was disinherited for finally, actually tying the knot with his mother. He recalled his family’s passage through Ellis Island and being inspected like cattle. He was a troubling youth, intermittently homeless and oscillating between Europe and America in a long and desperate search for something like a home. He dropped out of high school determined to teach himself, and changed his name from Jonas to Josef to please himself. He first started working with film during World War I when he made training films for the US Army, and afterwards rode a motorcycle around Italy to try and see all the country’s churches. Even the roots of his appended “von” are hazy, possibly handed him by a studio, or adopted as a tribute to his hero Erich Von Stroheim, whose favour he lost after he agreed to help MGM reedit the master’s The Merry Widow (1926).
Sternberg’s fascination for places and cultures meeting at points of flux in multicultural melting pots had then a persuasively autobiographical meaning. For Sternberg aesthetics weren’t just decoration, but the actual stuff of life, evoking the jostling mass of impressions and conventions and signifiers woven together to create an illusion of society, his cinematic frames points of converge for myriad signs and tropes and ideas. In none of his films is this more vital than with Shanghai Express, which might not be his greatest film, but is nonetheless perhaps his most essential and representative work. That’s in part because it’s one of his Dietrich vehicles, and also a sublime balancing act at once delirious and exacting, surreal and tactile, sarcastic and sincere, old-fashioned and fiercely modern. The basic material is harvested from some well-worn texts revolving around the ever-mythologised figure of the fallen but essential decent and redeemable prostitute, pinching the basic plot of Guy De Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” (which would also serve a few years later as a template for John Ford’s Stagecoach, 1939), with a little of W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Rain” and novel The Painted Veil thrown in for good measure.
The official basis however was a story by Henry Hervey, inspired in turn by a true incident that occurred in 1923. Known as the Lincheng Outrage, that incident saw a warlord out of Shandong capture the Shanghai-to-Beijing express and take everyone on board hostage, including twenty-five westerners, amongst them Lucy Aldrich, aunt of future filmmaker Robert Aldrich. After being held for two days, a ransom was paid and all the captives freed. Shanghai Express posits other reasons for such a waylaying. Warner Oland, the Swedish actor then very famous and popular for playing Chinese characters including the prototypical supervillain Fu Manchu and detective character Charlie Chan, is cast as Henry Chang, aka Number One, the leader of a revolutionary army who has mixed Chinese and European heritage, a detail Sternberg seems to have introduced in part to express scepticism with being saddled with Oland’s yellowface act, but also using it purposefully to meditate on the theme of divided identity in a film otherwise driven by clashing binaries. Chang becomes one of many projection figures for Sternberg as a portrait in will, a man who declares “I live by my own code,” and operates his army less as an organ with political aims than as an extension of his own will and ego, much like Sternberg’s approach to filmmaking.
Structural affinity here with disaster movies, and Shanghai Express is one, after a fashion, whilst also resembling the film that beat it out for 1932’s Best Picture Oscar, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel, which similarly threw together an array of archetypes into a microcosmic setting that begets odd new realities. Where Grand Hotel is nascent soap opera wrapped in art deco chic, Shanghai Express is more classical melodrama, and a consequential hit of early sound cinema, establishing some stock situations and archetypes that would pervade the next twenty years of Hollywood product. Even Casablanca (1942) can be described as a variant. Furthman would recycle elements of his script for this for the likes of Tay Garnett’s China Seas (1935) and eventually for Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and as different as Sternberg and Hawks were, they had a point of intersection that Furthman helped draw out, in their fascination with characters who learn to live entirely by their own compass. Furthman would also recycle and amplify some of it, like the “To buy a new hat” joke made by the footloose heroine when questioned by pompous creeps about her reasons for travelling, in Hawks’ To Have And Have Not (1944). More immediately Shanghai Express sparked a wave of films set in then-fractious China, films like Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Lewis Milestone’s The General Died At Dawn (1936), John Farrow’s West of Shanghai (1937), and Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth (1937).
Sternberg opens with a rigorous sense linearity in tethering narrative to the train itself, depicting labourers making the train ready for is journey out of Beijing Station, or Peiping as it’s referred to here as per outmoded transliteration. Sternberg offers a brief montage of an engineer oiling mechanisms and a coolie washing windows, before the passengers begin to arrive. Some servants carry an opulent litter up to the train and out climbs Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), presented as an exemplar of Eastern status but also the first of the film’s two crucial women apart, granted prosperity and a measure of imperious independence at the expense of being considered socially unacceptable. Meanwhile the representatives of the West buy their tickets in a queue: old biddy Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) hands out cards for her boarding house in Shanghai and dotes over her dog which she smuggles into her compartment in a hamper, only to suffer his being stashed away in the baggage car. Bulbous businessman Yankee Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette) wears his wealth literally on his sleeve in the form of diamonds, only for these to prove to be phonies, the real ones never leaving his safe. Skinny old traveller Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz) brings a whiff of decadence and neurasthenia aboard: he calls himself an invalid and is grouchily insistent on avoiding all drafts, forcing windows to be kept shut and ventilators turned off. Major Lenard (Émile Chautard) is a French military man in full uniform, making his pleasantries to all but barely speaking a word of English. Missionary Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) comes aboard charged up with seemingly scornful passion for virtue. And there’s Chang, biding his time and playing the gentleman but always barely concealing his mordant and fatalistic vision.
Two other passengers of consequence also board the train: Captain Dr Donald ‘Doc’ Harvey (Clive Brook), a military surgeon being shuttled to Shanghai to perform an urgent operation on the governor-general of Shanghai, and Madeline, known to all and sundry by her nom-de-guerre Shanghai Lily (Dietrich). Lily is dropped off in the up-to-date equivalent of Hui Fei’s litter, a shimmering black Rolls Royce. She enters station, film, and our dreams, dressed as a fantasy vision, wearing a dress made of black feathers and a black mesh veil. She’s rendered a dark angel, a looming raptor, a creature of the night, every inch the maneater she’s characterised with by Harvey’s army chums and the fuming moralists aboard the train. Word of Lily being aboard is an instant topic of gossip and amused speculation, and Donald is forewarned to his affectations of sardonic disinterest and bewilderment as he’s told of this “notorious coaster.” When he asks what that is, he’s told, “A coaster’s a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast.” A high-class prostitute, in short. Donald maintains a level of cool detachment in the face of such notoriety close at hand, until he actually encounters Shanghai Lily and realises she’s actually Madeline, his former flame, the woman whose photo he still keeps a photo of in his watch case. “Married?” Donald asks, to Lily’s famous reply with its faint note of bitter humour and perverse pride, “No. It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
Even as he was adapting well to working with sound, Sternberg was a born silent filmmaker, who instinctively laboured to communicate through images. In true form, Sternberg condenses his metaphor for the world he’s portraying in Shanghai Express into a shot of the train rolling down a narrow Peiping street festooned with banners and crowded with shoppers and vendors, with the train it finally forced to halt because a cow has taken up station on the tracks, his aged owner in no hurry to move on for this chugging, blustering, smoke-spewing machine of modernity and its cargo of the rich and white. During the halt for the cow to be urged on Harvey and Lily meet and square off in the sharply divided image of a carriage window, shifting postures and attitudes, Lily framed with the edge of a bold and hard-edged Chinese banner, Harvey with a more tattered and discoloured standard, even as his trim, contained figure in uniform counters the inky wash of her black feathers. Once the train is allowed to creep onwards again, the contingent of soldiers riding atop the train lean over to spear food on the vendors’ stalls with their bayonets, in a sublimely cynical vignette that encapsulates with equal efficiency Sternberg’s opinion of military power and its part in this drama. Soon the Reverend Carmichael gets wind of the wicked ladies aboard the train, peering in on them like a bespectacled stork, and then warns Harvey, “Those two women are riding this train in search of victims…For the last fortnight I’ve been attending a man who went out of his mind after spending every penny on her.”
Whilst nominally a thriller and adventure movie, Shanghai Express is barely interested in that sort of thing, instead playing out as a series of entwined confrontations that all explore aspects of personal morality, finally winnowing it all down to a romantic quandary, being the fate of Harvey and Lily’s relationship. Both are still obviously charged with profound attraction from their first reunion and all the fluctuations that befall them. It’s a stock situation of course, cornball in almost any other hands, except for the way Sternberg frames it as only a slightly exaggerated take on the basic problem of men and women. It becomes clear during their many, angular conversations, filled with wordings and phrases that suggest some sort of elaborate semaphore, that whilst they were once engaged, Lily decided to test Donald’s faith in their love by provoking his jealousy, but the gesture backfired as Donald immediately left her. The push and pull between passion and disquiet, trust and suspicion enacted between Donald and Lily is the crux of all, with love posited as a form of faith as vital as, if not moreso, the religious kind. In that context it’s Donald rather than Lily who is the fallen figure, although at the same time he has a potency of will that distinguishes him from the men who go out of their mind after spending every penny on her. It’s easy to imagine Sternberg smirking more than a little when the film builds to the crucial moment when Lily prays for Donald’s safety in an apex of Hollywood cheese, and yet he deals with it with fierce earnestness, in part because of the heady power in that convergence of kinds of faith and, more importantly, in the images springing from it. Where Morocco found its famous zenith in the image of Dietrich striding off into the desert, facing a kind of degradation but also transcendence that took her to the verge of the mythic, Lily faces a similar pivot in which she offers her proof of faith in the most literal manner possible, with her body.
Sternberg couches this against the backdrop of the titular Shanghai Express, which is for the most part a moving stasis chamber for European sensibilities, drilling its way through a land in turmoil with its own ways of thinking and seeing and feeling. China at the time was a very different country in 1932 to the one we know today, notoriously beset by civil strife, regional warlords, clashing political factions, and overbearing Western influence. In the same year Shanghai Express was released Japan annexed Manchuria, and two years later Mao Zedong would lead the Long March. Not that Sternberg is interested in such political reality, although he and Furthman still arrive at a pretty sharp metaphor for a variety of petty, revanchist nationalism as embodied by Chang. Chang and Hui Fei are the only locals travelling in the first class compartment. Petty irritants proliferate, including Baum’s demands the ventilators in the dining car be shut off, but contain the seeds of awful consequence; big objections, like Carmichael’s complaints about the two hookers on the train, eventually prove negligible. At one point the train is stopped by government soldiers who inspect every passenger’s passports and papers, a sort of legal-official version of what Chang does more exactingly later when he scours every passenger for lies, deceptions, delusions, and hidden motives. During the sweep a tall Chinese passenger is arrested and spirited away by the soldiers: the arrested man is an agent of Chang’s carrying important information, and his loss provokes Chang to send a coded message to his soldiers up the line to wait for the train at the remote station of Te-Shan and be ready to capture it. The lush language of Chang’s coded message (“Blue Lotus lost – must have red blossoms at midnight.”) offers a flash of incidental poetry wrapped around dark meaning, and sarcastically mirrors the interplay of social codes and expressions that dance around the meat of each matter, including the way Donald and Lily’s speech waltzes around exact expressions of their feelings.
As the two fall into talking again on the carriage balcony, eventually resurging passion gets the better of both as Lily draws Donald down for a kiss, whereupon Sternberg cuts wittily to a shot of the loop on a mail pouch being held for a porter on the train to snatch as it rushes by: the old snare draws tight. “I wish you could tell me there were no other men,” Donald declares in exasperation after as he abruptly releases Lily, who retorts, donning his uniform cap in ironically subsuming his captaincy: “I wish I could too Doc, but five years in China is a long time.” When Donald glumly recites the life they should have had together and notes the things he wouldn’t have done if all that had transpired, Lily responds the only thing she wouldn’t have done was bob her hair. Delivered a telegram and asked by Donald if it’s from one of her lovers, she says no, and after she extracts a promise of belief from Donald hands him the telegram, which is indeed from one of her male admirers awaiting her arrival in Shanghai eagerly. Lily delivers the killer blow for both of them: “When I needed your faith you withheld it, and now that I don’t need it, and don’t deserve it, you give it to me.” The contrast in affect between the two, Donald’s glumness and Lily effervescent, accepting humour, betrays radically different ways of surviving an event that did damage to them both, suggesting that when Madeline became Shanghai Lily it was with a kind of heroic determination.
That determination shines out from her earliest scenes, as Lily is ensconced in her apartment with Hui Fei, the two hussies of radically different backgrounds and temperaments nonetheless obliged to meet in solidarity and silently indulge each-other. Lily has a gramophone from which she lets blare saucy jazz. When Mrs Haggerty comes around soliciting their custom for her boarding house with the promise she only allows the most respectable people in, Lily questions as she twiddles Haggerty’s card, “Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” When Haggerty reiterates that she keeps a boarding house, Lily makes a play of mishearing her and alluding to the possibility she keeps a bawdyhouse, whilst Hui Fei comments that she doesn’t quite grasp Haggert’s definition of respectability. The sarcasm of the two women repels her and Carmichael, even as Donald, Lenard, and Salt are in their individual and worldly ways more gentlemanly: “Time to put on the nose bags!” Salt quips as he passes the women on the way to the dining car and gives Hui Fei a chummy squeeze of the shoulder. Palette is ingeniously cast as Salt, exploiting his bullfrog chin and croaky voice to embody a certain kind of stolid American canniness, sporting his showy jewels that declare his wealth, only to be forced to give them up, and then reveal they were fakes all the time: “The real ones are in a safe in Shanghai.”
Chang meanwhile tries to corner Hui Fei in her apartment, seeking an easy conquest from the courtesan. Sternberg films this crucial moment in one deadpan shot utilising the sliding compartment doors as an element of staging, as Chang slides shut a door with a curtained window as a screen, before drawing Hui Fei to him for a moment of shadow-play, only for her to resist and slide the door open again, shoving Chang back into the hallway and delivering harsh rebuke in Mandarin. When the train reaches Te-Shan, Chang’s hidden soldiers gun down the government troops protecting it in an interlude of pure Expressionist style, and gather the first-class passengers in the station building, a run-down and eerie locale hastily repurposed as Chang’s headquarters. Chang takes over an office and bunkroom and one by one summons the passengers up to be variously interrogated and robbed, and, when Chang thinks it proper, to be punished for their slights and injuries to him. In the process Chang ruthlessly exposes rips away all false guises including his own, becoming a kind of judge and also an authorial figure, ending the games played aboard the train and forcing a dramatic crisis. Chang robs Salt, prods Baum with the truth that he’s an opium merchant, and utilises Lily’s translating skills to extract Lenard’s confession that he’s been drummed out of the French army but still wants to maintain the illusion he’s a soldier for his sister’s benefit when he reaches Shanghai. Hui Fei is bundled into his rooms, raped, and kicked out again, dishevelled and dizzy. He even nimbly extracts from Donald the facts of his mission to Shanghai, presenting him with just the right point of leverage to force his agent’s release and return.
Chang waves a red-hot iron plucked from a brazier at Baum and using it to scorch through a hanging mesh veil as a grim promise of his intention towards the rude old man: “I’m not punishing you because you deal in opium, but for your insolence to me on the train.” The station is festooned with many such veils, creating a kind of spider’s web as well as exacerbating the dreamy atmosphere. Chang burning the veil also serves as an arresting visual metaphor for Chang’s function in burning away the veils around the other characters, and a note of authentic brutality that gives special urgency later when Chang makes even worse threats against Donald. After Lily aids Chang in translating for Lenard, Chang lets her take a nap in a bunk in his office, and then proposes that she come be his guest-cum-concubine for a spell. Lily however declares that she’s reformed, and when Chang becomes physical, Donald, waiting out his hostage time in a neighbouring room and overhearing, kicks down the door and wallops the warlord. In payback, even after his agent is returned by the government in a special train, Chang plans to burn Donald’s eyes out. Lily, worried when she’s thrown out of Chang’s rooms whilst Donald is held, is so desperate she asks Carmichael if he can do anything: Carmichael tells her the only thing she can do is get down on her knees and pray, and when Lily admits she might as well “if God is still on speaking terms with me,” Carmichael declares, irritably but also earnestly, “God is on speaking terms with everybody.” Carmichael then catches a glimpse of Lily retreating into a darkened compartment and praying.
What’s compelling about all this, which seems on the face of things to be a pure sop to Hollywood sentiment and the Carmichaels in the audience busy getting the Production Code imposed on movies, lies in the way Sternberg presents this turn not as an abasement of Lily but rather an apotheosis. Lily makes no appeal for approval to anyone except the Almighty, evincing a personal code just as strong as Chang’s, and it’s she who forces Carmichael to revise his ideas of morality rather than him working upon her. Hui Fei has a similarly rigorous sensibility, with an added lustre of patriotic zeal: when she finally realises who Chang is, she comments that it will “be a great day for China” when he’s captured and executed, and soon is given good cause to do it herself. Later she comments with cold zest, “He repaid his debt to me.” Sternberg had a recurring fascination with tales of redemption, transfiguring events that rescue characters from the cage of their ego, existing simultaneously to and sometimes in commentary upon his other fixation on self-destructive types who finally can’t escape that cage and go mad or are otherwise destroyed instead. The spectacle of Carmichael becoming Lily’s champion imbues the last portion of the film with unexpected new dimension, moving beyond a mere clash between the representative of happily sceptical erotic power and the joyless puritan, or the opposite, the fallen wanton beatifically reformed by the patronisingly virtuous, but with a sense of evolution in both characters and their worldviews: both are linked by their capacity to live up to implicit but difficult, even humiliating aspects of their credos. “Love without faith is like religion without faith,” Carmichael sighs with his customary brusqueness as he admits Lily’s point: “It doesn’t amount to very much.”
Dietrich had a slightly different energy in her early vehicles than she did by the 1940s when her persona had hardened along with her features. Dietrich was older than the usual run of movie ingénues, pushing 30 when Sternberg cast her in The Blue Angel and with a successful stage career already behind her, plus marriage and myriad adventures in Weimar nightlife. So her unique screen presence came ready-loaded with an impression of a personality well-honed, backing up the aura of bulletproof power and sly, provocative humour and pansexual power her characters so often displayed. And yet she was also just young enough to allow glimmers of naivety appear in her characters. Which made it all the more impressive when that veneer breaks down in the course of a movie, as Shanghai Express depicts, not shattered by external forces which Lily is well used to weathering, but by her true self, when faced with consequences for the things she actually cherishes, and the shattering of her veneer is not a loss but a recovery. Sternberg’s most electrifying and carefully crafted close-ups throughout the film portray the stations of this particular cross, as when he has her peer through the window of the Te-Shan station doors, eyes wide and blazing, her blonde bob now a little loose and wild, in the throes of fear for Donald, the spark of wild madness also rapture in the grip of authentic passion.
Wong, today a revived cult figure but one Hollywood sadly never really knew what to do with her in her own time, is just as fascinating a presence despite having a much smaller part. Shanghai Express posits Hui Fei as Lily’s accidental companion but also her fated doppelganger, even a kind of familiar, one who embodies and enacts the darker implications of Lily’s journey. Even more taciturn and self-contained, she’s untroubled by any lost love as Lily is. The mere sight of the two women in their compartment is compelling, the spectacle of their indolence in their detachment from all judgement and opinion outside of themselves, Lily playing her jazz and Hui Fei listlessly playing solitaire and smoking, the netherworld of hazily sensual and amoral delights each has repeatedly and bravely stepped into and still carry about them like a bubble, a state of almost alien exception Sternberg also rhymes with the ideal of cinema stardom itself. Sternberg and costumer Travis Banton present them as visual mirror images, Lily initially swathed in black only to eventually reveal her blazing hair, Hui Fei dressed in light, glossy hues with her black hair sliced in geometric precision. Shanghai Express isn’t exactly feminist in the modern sense, and yet its radicalism in certain regards still startles, viewing these two “fallen women” as the ones who command events on subtle and overt levels, and it’s the male characters who must get over themselves.
Hui Fei is unfortunately also exposed to someone like Chang, who feels no compunction in taking what he wants from her, where he’s more circumspect if scarcely less acquisitive with the Westerner Lily. When Hui Fei resists Chang sees it as a cue to abuse and humiliate, only to find the kind of pride and strength Chang seems to think is his personal province is also shared by the equally, potently vengeful courtesan. There’s also some sense of evil humour in the way Wong and Oland are cast given that Wong had played Oland’s daughter in the Fu Manchu film Daughter of the Dragon (1931). After Hui Fei is thrown out of Chang’s rooms with her formerly sculpted hair now loose and bedraggled, pawed at by one of Chang’s soldiers, she descends back into the train, trailed by Lily who grabs her when she plucks a dagger from her carrying bag and seems to be considering suicide. Instead, Hui Fei sneaks back into the station, lays in wait for Chang in the shadows, and stabs him to death when his back is turned to her: Sternberg films her through the hanging veils and shadows, transformed into a spectral presence by murderous zeal, only to return to her compartment on the train and resume her game of solitaire, only a slightly sadder gleam to her betraying anything happened in the meantime. By this time Chang has released Donald, having used the hot iron he was going to use on Donald’s eyes to first light his cigarette and then scorch through the bonds on his captive’s wrists to release him.
Seeing Lily in Chang’s company and assured by both of them that she’s going with the warlord willingly, Donald retreats with his gentlemanly pretences barely suppressing offence and anger, but when he learns from Hui Fei that she’s killed Chang, he grabs a gun from a superintendent sent to fetch him and dashes into the station to rescue Lily. Donald doesn’t have to shoot anyone, knocking out a couple of guards, returning to the train with Lily, and ordering a fast departure. Donald is an interesting romantic hero in the frame of such drama. He’s portrayed as an almost ideal embodiment of a certain kind of masculinity, so English you can smell London smog on him, combining the bravery of a soldier and a healer’s sense of care, one who readily jumps to the rescue even when he’s broken-hearted and furious. Sternberg plainly describes this creature he admires enormously to also critique him: Donald is also repressed and troubled by his memories of loving Lily, and his romantic failure is that he had no deep intrinsic sense of her loving him back, even as he wants to. Lily had not just an infamous career to retreat into but also an alternate identity, the costume of Shanghai Lily wrapped around Madeline, a privilege of womanhood. Donald’s uniform is the perfect outer expression of his inner spirit, tight and contained, gallant but held in check: the curse of manhood.
Brook, a mostly forgotten matinee idol who nonetheless also had the claim of starring in the following year’s Best Picture winner Cavalcade, has the relatively thankless role in the film that’s more about a man being loved by a woman, in which the hero is indeed more of an object despite his shows of bravura. And yet the film very much depends on Brook pulling off what Sternberg demands of him, to suggest what’s impressive about Donald and also what’s flaccid in him. Despite being freed in flashes of action, Donald is so often throughout the film locked into frieze-like postures, or as film writer Erich Kuersten neatly described, “cigarette ad abstraction,” in part because he’s constantly pictured with a cigarette squeezed between his fingers as tightly and tensely as a falcon’s claws about a fish, blowing out smoke in measured plumes. Such postures illustrate Donald’s frigid Anglo-Saxon restraint warring with his deep-flowing sense of erotic and emotional excitement when drawn back into Lily’s orbit, resulting in paralysis and sour frustration concealed by a veneer of flinty cool, reduced to registering expressions of pouty, desperate Englishness as he oscillates between sarcastic and urgently romantic pronouncements. Carmichael finally becomes as fuming mad at him as he was with Lily at the outset, not revealing the motives for Lily’s actions but mentioning her praying for him, planting disquiet in Donald’s mind. Meanwhile Mrs Haggerty derides Lily’s behaviour on the train whilst Lily announces her disdain for everyone else by playing her gramophone as loud as she can.
The real climax of the film isn’t Chang’s death and Donald’s rescue, nor is it the final clinch the lovers share in Shanghai, although that makes for a splendid afterword. The climax instead comes when Lily, with a carefully contrived appearance of flirty casualness, comes to Donald as he sits pensively in his compartment. Lily bums a cigarette and Donald notices her hands are shaking like she’s nervous, before noting that Carmichael told her about the praying, but appends with a curl of disdain, “Which I doubt,” and Lily, aggravated and with pride resurgent, says she would have done it for anyone and takes her leave. She retreat into her cabin, turns off the light, and leans against the wall, lit by a fanlight. An on-set still photo taken with this lighting set-up and Dietrich posed with eyes turned up to the light became famous, capturing the mystique of Dietrich as Sternberg had laboured so hard to fashion in its most iconic reduction. But the photo didn’t capture the specific emotion Dietrich is called upon to project in the actual scene, what makes it so memorable as a moment of cinema. The tiny quivers in Lily’s hands, the lines in her forehead and the expression of frayed desperation and anguish, the cost of what she’s done finally telling but still only expressed in private reverie. Here Sternberg does something very few other directors have managed, to convey a character’s inner life with every element available to their filmmaking – a highpoint of his labours, and Dietrich’s.
The train passengers all reach Shanghai and the terminus of their association, people who earlier were facing pivots of life and death together saying their farewells in varying degrees of rush, distraction, and eagerness to leave it all behind, except for Donald and Lily who receive gratitude for their actions: “I owe you my life and I’m not the man to forget it,” Salt tells Donald, “Although between you and me it isn’t worth very much.” Hui Fei gains her own, fresh, not particularly welcome fame as journalists quiz her about how she killed Chang, and very quickly and irritably moves to flee them. Lily buys Donald a new watch to replace the one with her image, broken in the melee, whilst Donald has her on his mind even as he exchanges pleasantries with others. Sternberg maintains his cinematic wit through these last shots as he makes odd use of dissolves, first to suggest how Lily is lingering on Donald’s mind even as he’s speaking to Salt and a military colleague, and then to weave their final union into the flow of life churning through the station. Finally, Donald gives in and places aside his doubts, finally achieving the odd state of grace Lily always demanded of him, allowing them to have their triumphal kiss before the fade-out, with the enticingly fetishistic final detail of Lily caressing and gripping the leather strap of Donald’s bandolier. All accompanied by jaunty jazz on the soundtrack, fanfare for people willing to take their leap into the strange new world.