Josef von Sternberg was famed for meticulous composition of his shots, camera movement, intense concern for atmosphere and detail. He was difficult, but if anyone could withstand his bullying, it was Dietrich, as tough off-screen as on. The screen glows when she appears, and she never appeared more glowingly than in Shanghai Express as a high-style courtesan“ she taunts the man who loved and left her: “It took more than one man to make me Shanghai Lily.
The Shanghai Express, hauling intrigue and romance, runs from Peiping to Shanghai. It’s a time of revolution: a hostile army threatens the train, while onboard the rebel leader Chang (Warner Oland as a wily, sexually aggressive, and merciless villain) measures his victims. Passengers include an Agatha Christie menagerie of characters “ a fussy elderly British woman with a little dog, a German opium dealer disguised as Muslim, an older French officer with a dark secret, a squeamish and blathering Christian missionary, a blustering and racist American gambler (Eugene Palette), a British medical officer (Clive Brook), and an inscrutable China doll (Anna May Wong) … and “Shanghai Lily," with drop-dead wraparounds and rich trophies of her sins. The train is China in miniature … open cars with multitudes of workers, squads of military jamming corridors, and Europeans luxuriating in posh compartments.
Will the train evade the rebels; will the British officer renew his affair with Dietrich? The dialogue is crisp “ why would anyone wish to be Chinese: “You’re born, they hand you a bowl of rice, and you die. Brook and Dietrich circle one another “ she her heart still very much his “ and he scandalized by her repute for sexual license. Will the train avoid Chang’s perfidy? Will Anna May Wong and Dietrich escape Chang's lust before the Hays Code for decency shuts them down?
There’s plenty of intrigue, but the real test is whether the camera will survive Dietrich’s sexual heat and von Sternberg exhaust ways to celebrate her allure. The film won awards for its camera work, and especially for the chiaroscuro mastery framing Dietrich against various qualities of darkness. Shanghai Express is a treat for the eyes, a revelation of the possibilities of B&W cinema.
Other Dietrich/von Sternberg wonders: Morocco (1930), with Gary Cooper; and Der Blaue Engel (1930), with Emil Jannings.