The Shanghai Gesture

Dir: Josef von Sternberg, 1941. Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature. Film Noir.
The Shanghai Gesture

The Shanghai Gesture is an impressively sordid film noir with the gauzy atmospheric haze of an opium induced nightmare. Director Josef von Sternberg went admirably overboard in depicting his idea of an exotic horror show. As in his most famous film and the one that introduced the world to the Teutonic splendor of Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel (1930), Sternberg had a thing for dropping weak-willed characters into dens of iniquity, only to let those poor suckers become enslaved by their obsessions and get taken for every nickel. He seems to enjoy the spectacle of their descent from flawed innocents to vice-addled wrecks. Whereas The Blue Angel was about a priggish professor led into ruination by the low rent charms of Dietrich’s Lola Lola cabaret chanteuse, in The Shanghai Gesture it’s a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who starts out as the privileged daughter of a British developer abroad and ends up a raving gambling and who-knows-what-else-addict. Although the play on which The Shanghai Gesture is based is reportedly far racier and more explicit than the film, Sternberg still finds lots of shadows to explore in the material, resulting in a film slightly less disturbing than The Blue Angel but still a lot stranger than most studio fare of its time.

The Shanghai Gesture takes place in Shanghai but is unmistakably shot on a studio set. The artifice of smoke machines and dimly lit indoor streets create a wonderfully nocturnal atmosphere that is perfect for the material. Realism has no place in this story. Gene Tierney plays Poppy (yes, Poppy) a rich girl who shows up at a Shanghai gambling house run by proprietress ‘Mother’ Gin Sling (Ona Munson). ‘Mother’ Gin Sling’s gambling house is the center of the action for most of the film. It’s circular in shape with multiple levels surrounding the main casino floor and blindingly white. It’s a temple of vice where anything can happen. Poppy takes an almost sexual pleasure in the illicit activities of the tuxedo-clad gamblers—wealthy denizens of a lawless town—and the money and alcohol all around her, and tells her date for the evening, “It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think a place like this existed except in my imagination.” Dialogue like that makes a film easy to love. As it turns out, Poppy’s father is a developer intent on forcing Mother Gin Sling to shut down her casino and vacate the premises. Gin Sling, with her terrifying Medusa hair and vindictive nature, discovers one of her new regulars is the daughter of the man who wants to shut her down and sets to work on destroying her as a way to get back at her father. Victor Mature, playing a cape clad minion to Gin Sling, is assigned with the task of leading Poppy astray. Poppy proves to be easy prey, getting hooked on gambling and losing her father’s money by the thousands while boozing it up night after night. Gin Sling keeps advancing her money to gamble with until she essentially owns her.

Third act plot twists take the story into ever weirder and more ridiculous territory and everyone regrets ever taking on Gin Sling, though she herself is ruined in the process when she takes her revenge plot a step too far. While watching the film it was hard not to think of Gloria Swanson channeling Munson’s dragon lady creation 9 years later for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. As good as she is, though, the film belongs to Tierney who spoils rotten in a way that’s both morbid and pretty sexy.

The Shanghai Gesture is an uneven film with long, tedious sequences that aren’t up to the luxuriously perverse styling that Sternberg drenches everything in. Still, it’s his flair for depicting decadence that makes the film a lot of fun to watch. The theater-in-the-round set is like an elaborate rendering of Dante’s Inferno with each layer of glamorous spectators circling lower and lower with the gambling pit serving as the epicenter of hell. There’s an especially memorable sequence where young women in giant cages are hoisted above the gambling pit on Chinese New Year and raised to the ceiling. Gin Sling explains this sadistic floor show as a Chinese custom to her guests before sticking the proverbial knife into her target by having his daughter brought to him in her sorry state. Then she turns homicidal, ending the film on a suitably over-the-top note.

For all of the wages-of-sin stuff, Sternberg can’t really be called a moralist here—his film is too weird to resonate explicitly and none of the characters are remotely redeemable from the start. But The Shanghai Gesture, with its bizarre theatrics and lavishly grotesque characters, puts Sternberg in a league of his own as the preeminent cinematic poet of corruption. You might not want to watch The Shanghai Gesture more than once, but you won’t forget it any time soon.


The Shanghai Gesture was nominated for 2 Oscars:  Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Score (Dramatic or Comedy Picture).

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 10, 2009 5:07pm
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