So last night I saw Shanghai Express, a 1932 film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich. It's one of seven films the besotted director and his leading lady made together between 1930 and 1935. (If you want to see the affair crash and die onscreen, check out their last collaboration, the not-so-coincidentally titled The Devil Is a Woman.) Shanghai Express is not a great film, but it has its great moments. There's this scene where Marlene Dietrich walks into her train compartment, closes the door behind her and leans back. The compartment is dark except for a single overhead light, and as she stands there with her face bowed, she's made up of nothing but blonde hair and shadows. Then she lifts her head up toward the ceiling and her face is illuminated. The camera lingers on Dietrich for maybe ten seconds as she just stands there, smoking a cigarette with a trembling hand. It's a devastating sequence, both visually and emotionally, a reminder of the heights that cinema can reach.
And of course there's the famous exchange between high-class courtesan Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and her old lover Captain Harvey (Clive Brook, taking the British stiff upper lip to occasionally hilarious extremes). After a separation of five years, the two are catching up and Lily mentions that she has changed her name. Harvey inquires if she has married, and Lily replies, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."
Verdict: worth seeing. It's beautifully shot (although what else would you expect from von Sternberg?), and Dietrich's costumes are many and lavish. But a number of the characters are no more than caricatures, and the plot turns the British army into absolute idiots in order to force a dramatic sacrifice on Dietrich's part.