A 1941 American United Artists film noir motion picture starring Gene Tierney and Walter Huston, with Victor Mature and Ona Munson adapted for the screen by Josef von Sternberg, based on the play by John Colton, produced by Arnold Pressburger for United Artists, and directed by von Sternberg.
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The obvious comparison is 'Gambling Hell', which has a similar plot. Both are concerned with evildoers "It smells so incredibly evil", who have children they wish to protect. Decadence and intrigue rule the day. Mother Gin Sling / Mother Medusa / Mother Goddam has a fake smile to go with all the fakery going on. This movie is better overall despite the petulant performance of Tierney. She's so annoying!
"It smells so incredibly evil. I didn't think such a place existed except in my own imagination," says Gene Tierney, summing up all of Sternberg's cinema. And what price for pursuing it? Shanghai Gesture is part wish-fulfillment, part nightmare, part meta-commentary thereof, relishing in peeling back moral facades to reveal a sinful hot mess underneath. Don't expect an airtight plot. Sternberg knows it's all a dream.
In one of the most beautiful close-ups of cinema history, Poppy/Gene Tierney describes perfectly the glamorous and illusionary world of Josef von Sternberg: "It smells so incredibly evil... I didn't think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. Anything could happen here... any moment..." http://specchioscuro.it/i-misteri-di-shanghai/
“The Shanghai Gesture is a marvelous joke on the zeitgeist of the forties. At a time when screen censorship was so rigid that films of the early thirties like Arrowsmith and A Farewell to Arms were reissued only after extensive scissoring for salacity, The Shanghai Gesture had no ostensible subject except the decadence and depravity of a horde of people who seemed to have been left behind on The Shanghai Express."
In its milieu, certainly, but especially in its fascinating visual geography, von Sternberg's bold and kinda trashy THE SHANGHAI GESTURE would seem to owe a debt to Dante. And it would appear timely that during the early days of the second world war, von Sternberg would bring us this vision of a drop-out civilization beneath (or peripheral to) civilization proper. This is very much not pro-civilization art.
I honestly don't know what to make of it...it is just so over the top, yet oh-so-beautiful to look at, as are all von Sternbergs. A unique, strange film and one that I am probably going to have to watch again to try and make sense of.