Shanghai Express

In Sternberg's fantasy of China, “the realism of place was given over to the loveliness of decor and the ambiguous iconography of the love goddess” (David Thomson). A train crossing this land of picturesque squalor becomes a political, moral, and romantic battleground where Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), “notorious white flower of China,” faces a reckoning with her former lover Doc (Clive Brook). A revolutionary episode advances the plot, but for Sternberg, suspense is a matter of sexual rather than political tension. A hostage situation is a test of devotion, and honor is upheld through dishonor, the woman's way. Lee Garmes's chiaroscuro camera dwells incessantly on Dietrich, even when she's irrelevant to the scene; her body takes on a startling spiritual dimension as her manicured hands, framed in darkness, meet softly in prayer.

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