Shanghai Express

“It took more than one man toFamous still change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Marlene Dietrich tells her former lover in Shanghai Express (1932). This was before the Hays Code — just — when an actress could get away with a line like that. Dietrich plays “a woman of many casual affairs,” as Mordaunt Hall delicately put it in his review for the New York Times.

Mr. Hall was quite smitten. Dietrich, he wrote,  “. . . is languorous but fearless as Lily. She glides through her scenes with heavy eyelids and puffing on her cigarettes.” There is, indeed, the famous still of Dietrich, cigarette in hand, gazing skyward. Another of her in the train corridor wearing a negligee. This last one was too much for Vanity Fair. Director Von Sternberg “traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, of whom he has made a paramount slut,” the magazine accused.Marlene-Shanghai-3

In fact, Shanghai Lily was reputed to have “wrecked a dozen men, up and down the China coast,” according to the friend of her paramour in the film, Doc Harvey (Clive Brook), but she never comes across as a slut. For one thing, she’s too fascinating, and she has no illusions about herself. We can’t help rooting for her, and in the course of a train journey from Peking to Shanghai, she proves her moral worth and wins her lover back.

Nearly everyone else on the train seems to be hiding something. There’s a half-Chinese warlord (played by a white actor in “yellow face,” Werner Oland, who would soon become famous for playing Charlie Chan), a disgraced French officer, a missionary, a gambler, a stuffy old lady and an opium dealer. Gradually we learn their secrets as the train is commandeered by rebels. Only the other woman of ill repute, a Chinese prostitute named Hui-Fei (Anna May Wong) demonstrates comparable courage. 

This was Wong’s greatest role in American film. Mostly she was consigned to playing delicate flowers or Dragon Lady parts. Here she smokes a lot, to great effect (I’d put her right up there with Bette Davis), and never abandons her dignity.

Definitely worth watching.

A Touch of Evil

When I heard that today is Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 96th birthday, I was motivated to finish my review of “A Touch of Evil,” Orson Welles’s fascinating swan song as a director. You can understand why this was the last film he was allowed to direct. Even in its restored version, it fails to follow through on the promise of that brilliant opening sequence with the bomb in the trunk of the Chrysler.

As I said, brilliant. But let’s get back to Zsa Zsa. Her little cameo epitomizes the problem I had with this film. I was taken out of the story by her brief appearance as a bordello mistress. A glamorous Hungarian in some seedy Mexican border town? Really? And some thought Eva was incongruous in “Green Acres!”

Dietrich was another matter. You feel she belongs in such surroundings. You understand that she’s fallen on hard times since “Blue Angel” and you’re just happy to see her again, playing opposite Welles and smoking that Tiparillo. (Sorry, couldn’t resist an age-revealing allusion…)

That’s the thing:  Dietrich is an audience-pleaser. Welles’s performance is superb in a depressing way. Dennis Weaver’s nervous night clerk at the eerily empty motel where poor Janet Leigh is terrorized puts Norman Bates to shame. But other name-brand actors are wasted in this picture. Janet Leigh, Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff (as a Mexican?) and Charlton Heston (another alleged Mexican). Maybe auteur directors like Truffaut and Godard got a kick watching Welles show-off, but audiences were left in the cold, their needs for a coherent story unmet.

Anyhow, Happy Birthday Zsa Zsa.

The Blue Angel

I don’t want to neglect Marlene Dietrich’s performance, or the terrific Heinrich Mann story on which “The Blue Angel” is based, but let me begin with the style of this picture.

Josef von Sternberg had a painter’s eye.  Every scene he directed is composed like an Expressionist work of art.  Take a look at some of Max Beckmann’s etchings.  Dressing Room, for example,

or Café Musik.

Now watch this clip from the film.  There you go, a mini-course on Weimar art and you get to listen to Dietrich sing “Falling in Love Again” as an added bonus.

Von Sternberg cared more about the look of his pictures than about the feelings of his actors, whom he regarded as “marionettes, pieces of color on my canvas.”  But Dietrich was the perfect marionette, and the legendary affair they conducted during the filming of “The Blue Angel” contributed to her reputation as a femme fatale, enabling audiences to see her forever after as von Sternberg did:  sensuous, provocative, cruel, and utterly irresistible.  The type of woman who leads men to their doom — and they go willingly — and sings about it afterwards.

Emil Jannings specialized in playing degraded men in German films.  As Professor Rath, the high school teacher who falls for Dietrich’s Lola Lola, his performance is so perfect it’s painful to watch.  But it rings true, the way his childlike infatuation with the cabaret singer turns into jealous rage as Lola tires of him and drifts to another man.  The original story had more of a message.  Von Sternberg chose to end with the image of the dying professor clutching his desk, as if trying to regain his lost dignity.  Meanwhile, back at the Cabaret, Lola straddles a chair and lures her next victim with a sly song.  “Watch out for blondes, they have a certain flair, for stripping you bare and then leaving you.”

Forewarned is not forearmed in this case, I’m afraid.

(9 March 2011)