Why isn't Shanghai Express available on domestic DVD?
by Tony Dayoub
The collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and his muse, Marlene Dietrich, is one of cinema’s most fruitful. One can actually see Von Sternberg build the slight, tentative Dietrich from a starlet to a tempestuous, formidable screen icon over the course of seven films between 1930 and 1935. And neither would quite hit the career highs they did when they worked with each other. Von Sternberg would only be credited with eight more films before retiring in the late fifties. Dietrich would appear in many more, but her output was a relatively paltry one compared to actors of her day.
For Von Sternberg, his exacting methods of shooting and fussing over lighting (the director often shot much of his films even when not credited as the cinematographer) were frequently described as torturous even by his most ardent admirers and no doubt contributed to his marginalization. In Dietrich’s case, the angular quality of her face — always softened immensely by Von Sternberg’s flattering lighting setups — grew harsher as she aged, proving problematic as she transitioned from star to supporting player in films. The exoticism which Von Sternberg captured from Dietrich became less mysterious and more threatening.
Just compare her enticing allure in their first collaboration, The Blue Angel (1930) — in which her cabaret dancer accidentally seduces a respected teacher (Emil Jannings) — with her lethal severity as the Spanish Concha in The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Dietrich and Von Sternberg’s final outing together. Concha plays a man-eater who delights in the figurative castration of her male suitors. Dietrich’s carefully made-up lips (painted thicker to mimic fullness) and thinly penciled eyebrows — applied at an exaggeratedly high angle — enhance the natural angularity of her face, which looks like it could cut glass here. One can’t help but wonder if the evolution of Dietrich’s screen persona reflected the relationship between actor and director. In any case, as Von Sternberg’s star was falling, Dietrich’s ascended. And five of these seven films are easily obtainable in the US, so I do recommend watching them to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
Of the two that have not been released domestically — Dishonored (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932) — the latter is the most easily available for viewing. I first watched Shanghai Express at a Miami Beach revival house last year, and it often shows up on the Turner Classic Movies schedule. (It’s again scheduled to broadcast during a day-long tribute to Dietrich, at 6:30 p.m., on August 31.) It is a bit surprising, however, that Shanghai Express has yet to be released in America. Being the very middle film, the fourth in Von Sternberg’s seven-film partnership with Dietrich, Shanghai Express is the creative zenith of their shared filmography. Shanghai Express is equal parts style and substance — its chiaroscuro cinematography, elaborate production design, and gorgeous costuming all perfectly utilized as a vehicle for its quite uncomplicated plot...
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