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.
A dark and erotically charged fantasy about the Orient as seen from Von Sternberg's old Europe eyes. Gene Tierney finds here one of her best roles, where her sensuality, elegance and 'exotic' beauty are adroitly used. Poppy Smith allows her to be wonderfuly absent, on the edge of this abyss in which she will sink, with the expression in her eyes telling us that she was already there.
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/
This is like probably the most "if you can't sit through it I don't blame you" Sternberg but is also one of the most steamy and fascinating ones, the casino set alone not to mention Gene Tierney. Somewhere someone called this a like 'lush decaying fruit" and it's 100% correct
Sternberg's last great Hollywood film might have been even greater had Anna May Wong played the role of Mother Gin Sling, but Ona Munson's performance still has real bite. All the actors are perfectly cast and the lighting and settings are everything one could expect from this master. There is an air of cruel enjoyment in watching the destruction of these privileged colonizers, with whom the viewer likely identifies.
“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."