Marlene Dietrich is in full plume in Shanghai Express, literally and figuratively.
When she first appears at the train station in the movie’s opening section, joining a group of other expatriates who are bound for Shanghai, Dietrich wears a black dress that is adorned—along the arms and all around the neck—with sprouting feathers that glisten like spilled oil. The same feathers cover her tight skull cap, but here they are pasted down, the better to feature her inviting but pitiless eyes. Costume designer Travis Banton (who worked on most of the films Dietrich made with director Josef von Sternberg) offers variations as the movie proceeds—including a luxurious, fur-collared coat that offers a soft contrast to Dietrich’s sharp features—but it’s telling that Dietrich again dons the feathered number for the final scenes. It’s confirmation that in all of cinema, she’s a rare bird.
Of course the costumes don’t do all the work in Shanghai Express. Von Sternberg and the cinematographers (both Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe worked on the picture) seem to be less interested in lighting the entire set than in creating melodramatic pools of luminescence for Dietrich to enter. Even the insert shots involving her are given a special gleam. When she prays at one point—or at least tries to; her hands don’t quite clasp together—the image throbs with illuminated portent. Then, in one of the many elegant, superimposed flourishes, the image dissipates into a shot of steam wafting from the train.
This all pertains to how Dietrich is presented, but what of her actual performance? Well, she is playing a character—“Shanghai Lily,” an independent woman notorious for her string of lovers—but it’s clear by this film, her fourth with von Sternberg, that Dietrich would always be playing Dietrich. I questioned her chemistry with Gary Cooper in Morocco, and while she does have a more natural partner here in Clive Brook’s British military doctor, in truth there isn’t that much more of a spark between them. Her chemistry, ultimately, is with the camera (and thereby the audience). The little, self-amused smile she delivers after her best lines; the way she always turns with a sweeping motion; the dance she does with those lighting schemes—none of it is done “in character” or in rhythm with the other person on the screen. It’s all done for us. Few stars gave performances that were this self-aware of their own star status. (This is why the bit in Shanghai Express when she wears the doctor’s military cap is only partly a way to tease him; mostly, it’s meant to remind us of her top-hat routine in Morocco.)
Shanghai Express is first and foremost a definitive star vehicle, then, but it does have other attributes. The story itself turns on a compelling bit of international intrigue, especially when passenger Henry Chang (Warner Oland, a Swede awkwardly trying to pass as half Caucasian and half Asian) reveals himself to be a leader of the nascent Communist revolution and takes the entire train hostage. An ensuing subplot involves Anna May Wong as Hui Fei, a Chinese woman deemed to be as scandalous as Shanghai Lily. It’s telling that the first time Lily breaks her cool, detached demeanor comes after she has successfully rebuffed Chang’s advances, only to realize that Hui Fei is being taken into his room as her substitute. Lily’s ferocity in protest has more passion than any of her scenes with Brook’s doctor. As for Wong, who was already a rare, non-white star in Hollywood, she quietly gives the film’s second-best performance. The rage with which she enacts her revenge on Chang is startlingly modern, and the film admirably sets aside time to acknowledge the significance of the trauma she’s suffered.
Eventually, however, Shanghai Express shifts its spotlight back on Dietrich. There is a climactic moment that works within the film’s narrative, but could also play out entirely on a fashion runway. Once more provocatively dressed, Dietrich turns out the light in her room, briefly ensconcing the screen in darkness, and then steps into the small circle of light that has been waiting for her. Her moonbeam face—eyebrows reduced to thin painted lines, the better to accentuate her eyes—reflects the soft glow, allowing us to notice that her hands, holding a smoking cigarette, are trembling. It’s a career in a close-up.