Robert Benayoun, in his essay "Zaroff, or, The Prosperities of Vice:""Authentic sadistic cinema is not that which, through a vulgar display of brutality solicits the sadism of the spectator. It is a cinema in which discomfort, vague misgivings, a fascinated paralysis of mind and a twitching of the limbs exceed the frontiers of expectation, a cinema whose elective, even ceremonious climate remains, venomous and intoxicating, that of total perdition."
The essay's title is from the name of the lead villain in Cooper/Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game. The genre films Benayoun cites throughout the essay are among the choicest slices of surreal atmosphere-benders one could hope to have evoked. Game, Ulmer's The Black Cat, Brabin's The Mask of Fu Manchu, and more. And, of course, this film, a von Sternberg vision of unusual ferocity and oddness. The simple tale of a powerful man (Walter Huston), his spoiled, petulant, gorgeous daughter Victoria, who bears the addictive nickname of Poppy (Gene Tierney), and the fate that awaits them once that powerful man returns, as it were, to the scene of his past crime, the film is most remarkable for the way that it morphs, over the course of a hundred or so minutes, from what seems an almost deliberately kitschy evocation of decadence (Victor Mature as a "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"-spouting dandy? Really?) to an emblem of and immersion in more or less actual decadence. Quite a "ride," as they say.
The dealer of Poppy's fate is a mysterious, imperious casino owner who calls herself Mother Gin-Sling, portrayed with note-perfect ice and fury by Ona Munson. Benouyan again: "Mother Gin-Sling, a female version of Blangis, officiates hieratically at a banquet of forbidden orgies. In von Sternberg's masterpiece sadistic ritual attains a perfection that renders unbearable the rigidity of etiquette and costume, the baroque perfection of the decor, the effect of close confinement and the spectacular promiscuity of objection." The writer evokes Blangis, the master of depradations in Sade's "120 Days of Sodom", quite frequently in his essay, and the comparison with Mother Gin-Sling is apt. The female character is not as, shall we say, intellectual as Blangis—she's driven by emotion, a need for revenge—but could be perceived as in fact even more depraved. For reasons which, if explained her, would constitute a spoiler.
Is there any moment in cinema more thoroughly, breathtakingly redolent of debauchery and the debauched as the one in which a dolled-up, dope-up Poppy is reintroduced to her father by Mother Gin-Sling? In today's porn-permissive world, it's easy—maybe too easy—to imagine the depradations she was subject to/participated in prior to being hosed down, made up, and poured into that gown.
Of course how it plays is rather dependent on how it is projected. I, and many other fans of The Shanghai Gesture, have seen the picture in many theatrical and home video manifestation, and I have to say for myself that, to quote Billy Dee Williams in his Colt 45-pitching days, it "works every time." (von Sternberg directed it "lying on a couch," Tag Gallagher notes in this marvelous article. He made the film after a period of both personal and professional strife that led to a nervous breakdown.) But truth to tell, I've never seen it in an optimum print. I don't even know that there is an optimum print. Throughout Benayoun's essay, written well before home vid and bit torrent and all of that whatnot, he writes of cinematic projection as a form of black mass. And while in the home theater we at least have the option of adjusting the decor to be somewhat appropriate for a Satanic or sadistic rite, it won't mean a thing if the picture quality of our object of worship is just so. As it happens, the recent Region 2 PAL disc of Gesture, from Films San Frontieres, the same outfit responsible for the long-awaited DVD release of von Sternberg's incredible Anatahan, is the best looking home vid version I've ever seen (see DVD Beaver's review for an examination of the edge it has over the still-available 2006 U.S. Region 1 NTSC version) and even so, it is just so. When, oh when, will we see a full restoration that will match the gorgeous rot that comes to mind whenever lovers of this film remember it?