Friday, September 14, 2012

165. SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

























Sometimes there are movies quietly waiting for you to discover them like loaded guns. I was innocently cleaning my office when I found, in separate round snapcases, a pair of screeners that TCM had sent to me back in January, of Josef von Sternberg's DISHONORED and SHANGHAI EXPRESS, both starring his great muse Marlene Dietrich. I knew of them but had never seen either of them, the sort of presumptuous relationship those of us who gravitate to underexplored cinema sometimes have with acknowledged classics. Rather than spend another half hour deciding what to watch at the end of my day, I put on SHANGHAI EXPRESS and it went off in my face; I spent the next 90 minutes as entranced as I have ever been in a motion picture.

I think it's probably one of the ten greatest films I've ever seen, possibly the absolute zenith of everything I've seen from the 1930s... but keep in mind that I've yet to see Sternberg's other American films with Dietrich, who is an absolute revelation here. Every close-up she's given by DP Lee Garmes, working with an unbilled James Wong Howe (one of them is pictured), is an absolute masterpiece, which is not something you can say about Greta Garbo, even in QUEEN CHRISTINA. One of the questions that kept hitting me after this film ended was, "How could I have known Dietrich all my life -- from THE BLUE ANGEL, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, TOUCH OF EVIL -- but never seen her?" That is because I waited until my present age to see SHANGHAI EXPRESS.

I need to write about this film (as well as DISHONORED, which joins it in a two-disc set from TCM/Universal) with the detail and respect it deserves, so I will reserve that task for VIDEO WATCHDOG. But, if you haven't seen SHANGHAI EXPRESS yet, you really must.

Viewed on TCM/Universal DVD.

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