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THE SHANGHAI GESTURE displays what was best and worst in Josef von
Sternberg's 'German Expressionist' approach to film making, first seen
by American audiences in his classic Marlene Dietrich productions of
the 1930s. Each setting is decadent and mysterious, shot in soft focus,
and wreathed in smoke; a sense of the absurd manifests itself in
make-up, hairstyles, and costume; each character postures, incessantly,
striking poses before delivering dialog; and there is always an
undercurrent of sexual bondage, here manifested in the casual
suggestions made by lazy, yet smoldering 'Dr. Omar' (Victor Mature), to
the stranded showgirl, 'Dixie' (Phyllis Brooks), and the initially
haughty, if naive 'Poppy/Victoria' (Gene Tierney), both of whom he
easily 'bends' to his desires. In von Sternberg's world, there are
seldom heroes, only survivors and predators.
Set in a fantasy version of the infamous Chinese port, GESTURE gathers a disparate group of international 'types', and sets them down in the multileveled center of inequity, a gambling parlor run by the legendary Chinese 'Mother' Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Ensnared by their debts, the mysterious woman 'owns' them, possessing an extraordinary degree of power.
Then the equally mysterious and powerful Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) arrives in Shanghai, strong enough to control the local government, and with a goal of evicting 'Mother' Gin Sling, and tearing down her property. There is a shared 'skeleton' in both their closets, however, which she will reveal in the film's climactic 'Chinese New Year' dinner party...
While Munson could never 'pass' as Chinese, she does appear exotic and inscrutable, and is actually quite good, as is Huston, displaying a sensitivity masked in arrogant smugness. The true joy of the film, however, is watching the film's younger stars, early in their careers. Victor Mature, at 26, a year after his 'breakthrough' role in ONE MILLION B.C., poses more than acts in his role of an Arab gigolo, but clearly displays the sexuality that would make him a major heartthrob in the 40s; and Gene Tierney, not yet 21, occasionally overplays the 'fall' of her character, yet possesses the luminous beauty that would become her trademark.
Josef von Sternberg would only direct a handful of films after THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (receiving 'on screen' credit in even fewer), and this would be the last film he would have any kind of creative control over.
Faults and all, that alone would make THE SHANGHAI GESTURE worth viewing!
Marlene Dietrich,even if she does not appear is present here :she's the
marvelous Gene Tierney,the terrifying Ona Munson and the cynical Victor
Mature."The Shanghai gesture" is one of my favorite Sternberg movies.I
love the lines which warns us at the beginning of the film:it's not
real Shanghai,it does not take place in the present.
"The Shanghai gesture" is an unclassifiable work: a film noir?a melodrama?Most likely an extravaganza ,an incredible exotic story which smells of the intoxicating perfume of poisonous flowers.The gigantic dive looks like a cobweb which the high priestess Mother Gin Sling spins ."Why not Mother Whiskey Soda? " Tierney asks.
All the characters are not what they seem ,they just pretend.Tierney has two names (one of them is the well-chosen "Poppy") and we only learn her real identity in the second half in a scene which seems completely "out of the movie".Mature is Doctor Omar ,doctor of nothing! Even the women in the cages and the sailors who buy them just pretend .Nothing is real.
Tierney's downfall is depicted in lavish detail:from the elegant woman of the beginning to the wreck Gin Sling invites to her Chinese New Year feast .Directing is absolutely breathtaking,when the camera circles around the dive where a cast of thousands -Sternberg even pays a tribute to the extras in the cast and credits,which is rare ,to my knowledge ,the first and last time it had been made-surrounds the heroine ,or in the final scenes ,when the shots merge with the firecrackers of the New Year.
"The Shanghai gesture" may be a guilty pleasure.But this kind of pleasure ,I ask for more!
One of the most beautiful films ever made. Von Sternberg had a strange
and painterly way of composing a frame when he shot his films. In
earlier films the scenes abounded in detail, and often had layers that
would stretch back into the distance, or simply add complexity and a
sense of the tumult of the living all around. In this film he seemed to
change his focus to the glamorous portrait, and brought to life some of
the most stunning shots of actors I have ever seen.
If you wish to see the breathtaking beauty of Gene Tierney at its height that this is the film to see it. She's so willful and spoiled, suggesting the nymphomaniac that nobody could suggest any other way thanks to the censorship. Everyone in the film seems to licking their lips in anticipation of some decadent delight that will be happening off screen. And time and time again Sternberg throws up another static, stagy, yet impossibly beautiful portrait of one of his stars.
The scent of opium and sex practically oozes from every frame.
Fascinating. Once I stumbled onto this movie, I could not stop watching
it. When it was over, I had find out the title since I had missed the
beginning. So I spent my Saturday morning checking the Turner Classic
Movie T.V. schedule and then searching the internet to read about "The
Shanghai Gesture" and it's director and actors/actresses.
One of my first questions: Who is that playing Mother Gin Sling? I know it is not Marlene Dietrich, but who? Answer: actress Ona Munson aka "Belle Watling" from "Gone With The Wind." I NEVER would have guessed. All sorts of familiar faces showed up in familiar and not so familiar roles. Like the croupier from "Casablanca," presiding over a much more sinister roulette table.
The visuals get you first. Images of a well of depravity leading to ruin and despair, yet glamorous all the way.
I liked the characterizations too. Walter Houston was excellent and believable as the "straight" businessman. Gene Tierney did an amazing transformation from decisive, strong, and elegant socialite to needy, pathetically transparent, and out of control young woman. Ona Munson played an impressive "dragon lady." Victor Mature's gigolo was appropriately jaded and manipulative.
It is a hypnotic and sensuous morality tale about the lure of sex, gambling, drugs, alcohol, and money and the danger of addiction to any of these to one's inner spirit. It also illustrates the high price of revenge, especially misplaced revenge.
A respectable film from the man who directed "The Blue Angel."
This film has an allure and a power that is hard to define. "The Shanghai Gesture" is not perfect, but it seizes hold of your attention and makes one think.
Don't believe anyone who tells you this movie is bad - it is wonderful. The casino set with its art deco sculptures is a work of art and the music is superb. The play the script is based on is by John P. Marquand, who wrote the Mr. Moto books. I think in the original Poppy becomes addicted to drugs as well as to Dr. Omar. Gene Tierney is great as the girl who slides into degeneracy. All the ensemble cast are wonderful: the earthy chorus girl, the sinister old Chinese man who says he admires white women for their "intelligence and sense of humour" as his hands outline a voluptuous figure in the air. Mike Mazurski as a thug who acts as an ever-present Fate figure haunting Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). The elderly notable who regrets so politely that he must close Mother Gin Sling's operation down. Mother G herself with her bitter, drawling voice that has foresuffered all. See it if you can! This film is art! (Oh, I forgot the smiling character who plays Chopin in the casino/brothel.)
It was more than I had hoped for. Hollywood forties film noir
everyone is rotten to the core and no one wins. Great performances from a
time when stars could act and made the most of a script...and what script!
They sure don´t make them like that anymore. Such ideas...the
characters...so unusual but people like them have probably
Lovely Gene Tierney transcending her enchanting beauty showing that looks aren´t enough. Victor Mature also playing someone of great charm and little character. I like how the beautiful leads aren´t the heroes. No one is! Ona Munson - so amazing and otherwordly! Where are the strong character parts for women like that today??
The sumptuous sets, everything steeped in mystery. What an atmosphere von Sternberg created...! I loved it! I want so see more films like this and I could see it again. Is it available on video?
Thank you Hollywood!
All Von Sternberg films deserve to be seen on the big screen for their visual beauty, but this one also benefits from videoviewing - you can wind it back at those moments when you HAVE to ask, "Did I just see/hear that???" Gene Tierney would evolve into a fine actress, but she's terrible here -think Elizabeth Berkeley in SHOWGIRLS - only MUCH better looking, so we forgive her. Walter Huston is magnificent as always. Oona Munson seizes her role between her teeth and relishes every bite. "The soles of my feet cut open and pebbles sown into them to stop me running away..." YUCK! The loopy plot makes imperfect sense due to many many cuts by the censors, and maybe Maria Ouspenskaya had more to do in some previous, even madder version of the film, but it's an oneiric, mind-reeling romp of staggering decadence and grandeur. One story has Little Jo directing from atop a crane, from which he would toss silver dollars to actors who pleased him, while he himself claims he directed it lying flat on his back. Neither would surprise me, seeing the result.
Seductively decadent! "It smells so incredibly evil" says the beautiful protagonist, intoxicated by the very repugnance of the place,"I didn't think a place like this existed except in my imagination." The place is called Mother Ginsling's Casino which exists in the volatile morally ambiguous no-man's land that was Shanghai during the 1940's. Controlled by the "most cold blooded dragon you'll ever meet", Madame Ginsling, a scholar of human folly and master manipulator of their emotions, the Casino is threatened with closure by a powerful English business man, ironically not for morality but because she's an impediment to his expanding empire. But like any cunning predator, Ginsling searches for Sir Guy Charteris's Achilles heel and finds it in his beautiful, but not-so-innocently curious daughter Poppy Smith, who's curiosity with Ginsling's establishment quickly turns into an addiction. In about 20 minutes time, director Josef Von Sternberg will turn this heart-stopping beautiful and sophisticated girl into a babbling tramp, and considering that Poppy is played by Gene Tierney at her prime, this is a remarkable achievement! SHANGHAI GESTURE illustrates how skillful understatement in a master's hand can be scorchingly sensual and overtly decadent without even raising an eyebrow of the modern censor. Powerful performances by Tierney, Walter Houston, and Ona Munson. A masterpiece!
Most of those movie review reference books you see floating around in paperback call this film campy idiocy. It's campy only in the sense that it was made at a time when a certain degree of heavy-handedness and melodrama was the norm in films. It's certainly not idiotic. It is a story of perceived betrayal and self-degradation. The play it was based on was considered quite thought provoking and socially daring. The film was somewhat cleaned up but still addressed the main issues. The characterizations are quite involving, especially Mature's.
"The Shanghai Gesture" shows how attractive can be a melodramatic story when treated by an artist as Josef von Sternberg. The movie is in the style of German Expressionism; luckily enough, it avoids the slowness and bleak heaviness which affect many movies of that artistic movement, probably since it was filmed in Hollywood instead of Berlin. We are introduced in a world of desperate corruption; every sense of honesty or nobility is dead. It is typical that Mother Gin Sling's casino, the den of every meanness, is intended to be closed not for moral but for business reasons. There is a clever mixture of tragedy and grotesque. Ona Munson is extraordinary as Mother Gin Sling: she apparently knows shameful secrets of the whole cosmopolitan mob which throngs her casino; she has everyone into her claws. Her make-up and Chinese robes are magnificent; her fixed, cruel smile is really scaring. Victor Mature is great in the role of the indifferent, over-lazy Dr. Omar. He is probably black-mailed by Mother Gin Sling, like any other character in the movie; yet he seems to do evil just as an entertaining game, just to win his bore, not by coercion. Gene Tierney is Poppy, the spoiled, rich, scornful girl, just too apt to sink in a pit of corruption, with no possible coming back. A due remark: we are always so stunned by Gene's incredible beauty, that we find it difficult to realize her great talent. Here, at the age of twenty-one, she gives a fully mature performance. Also Walter Huston and all the supporting actors make beautiful jobs. Actually, the acting is always on the verge of grotesque: this is clearly an artistic choice by von Sternberg. If we can find a fault in "The Shanghai Gesture", is that the finale is a bit abrupt. Nonetheless it is a great film, deservedly a cult-movie in the history of cinema.
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