The Shanghai Gesture

The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941)

A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by "Mother" Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy Charteris, wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year.

Getting into the works of director Josef von Sternberg is something engaging and for some viewers alittle bit exhausting. His visual prowess and richness has never been equalled even compared to a master like Max Ophüls. Sternberg’s films are like a huge snowstorm; it is beautiful to look at but very tiring to try to drive through it. His most distinct work was with star Marlene Dietrich during the 1930’s, most notably with The Blue Angel, Scarlet Empress, and Morocco. With The Shanghai Gesture, Sternberg makes one of his final notable films. Known as a difficult and stubborn director, he fought to keep his artistic vision intact and to stay the only master aboard. Clearly being successful at his craft, he is on the very select list of Pantheon Directors of the late film critic Andrew Sarris.

This extravagant fresco of peculiar characters depicts a young globetrotter called Poppy (Gene Tierney) and her father (Walter Huston) on a business trip in Shanghai. While Poppy wants to enjoy life and meet interesting people, her father purchased a great deal of land in Shanghai and forces its owner to vacate her casino for the Chinese New Year’s Eve. We slowly discover that Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson), the casino owner, is linked with our two other characters. The story passes from Drama to Film noir and never sticks to one genre in particular. This gives a genuine pace to the film and a unique structure.
The Sternbergian signature is at every corner of every frame and every camera movement. The overcrowded frames of opulence and saturation of Sternberg’s touch can’t be denied. It is sometimes very hard to distinguish a film from a director or another when it comes to the films of this era. However, like Orson Welles or the aforementioned Ophüls, we don’t need the credits to recognize him.
As Jeffrey M. Anderson noted, Tierney captures the role Dietrich may have had in real life with Sternberg. The downfall of Poppy recalls how the director felt hard to recover from the split with his long time collaborator.

This being the third Sternberg film I’ve watched and I can say that it is my least favorite; this spot is still held by Scarlet Empress with The Blue Angel not far behind. The Shanghai Gesture is above a whole lot of other movies of its era, and lesser Sternberg is better than any film worth a look. 

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