Shanghai Express must surely be one of the great train films. It stars Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily, an infamous prostitute who crosses paths with a former lover, Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) on a dangerous journey across China. Their fellow passengers are an international bunch, English, German, French – and a half-Chinese man who has more than a passing connection with the nation’s civil war.
Brook is almost laughably uninteresting, but this is Dietrich’s film. Von Sternberg, being her svengali, knew how to elevate her beauty into realms of impossibility. She is given many striking moments, the best of which must be the camera tracking towards Lily down the train corridor as she prepares for a conversation that her heart depends upon. Dietrich plays Lily less forcefully than some of her more stereotypical roles, with a certain amount of flippancy, but always with honesty. Lily has no regrets about turning to prostitution and, most remarkably, the film doesn’t judge her for it. She is in no way incapable of deeper morality or emotions, however, and the film is entirely committed to her feelings and her choices.
Hard as it is for another woman to hold her own against Dietrich, Anna May Wong is more than capable. She is fascinating as Hui Fei, not merely because Asian actors were so rarely cast in early Hollywood films, but because she brings strength to the character, expressive even when silent. The role has traces of the Dragon Lady stereotype that Wong was unable to escape throughout her career, but nonetheless, the understated connection between Hui Fei and Lily affirms the humanity in both of them.
The rest of Shanghai Express’ characters are a pleasantly diverse group of personalities, constantly at odds with each other. Standouts are Warner Oland as the deceptive revolutionary, Eugene Pallette as an obnoxious gambler, and Lawrence Grant as a Reverend who overcomes his initial judgements about Lily. The character types in the film are largely dated in nationalistic ways, but the worst may be the dotty old English woman played by Louise Closser Hale, who is entirely unfunny.
Shanghai Express shows influences of German Expressionism in its cinematography. At times, it uses stark chiaroscuro. At others, it surrounds its characters with smoke or gauze. Despite its limited sets and slow final act, the film is always visually artful, sustained by Dietrich’s otherworldly yet passionate presence, von Sternberg’s masterful style, and the close connection between the two.