The Shanghai Gesture

1941, Movie, NR, 106 mins

Review

SHANGHAI GESTURE, THE
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The fascinating von Sternberg returned to the East of SHANGHAI EXPRESS with this trip into the underworld of a gambling den which stars Munson as its twisted, criminal proprietor who hides behind an impenetrable mask of makeup. Pressured by Huston, an English financier, Munson is threatened with the closing of her casino, despite the fact that she has bribed the local authorities. Although Munson tries to come to an agreement with Huston, she is never able to contact him. Desperate to remain in business, Munson searches for a way to pressure Huston and discovers that he was forced to leave China, taking with him his wife's money, plotting to kill his wife and leaving behind an infant daughter. The daughter, now grown, is Tierney, a favored and deeply indebted guest of Munson's casino. With this information, Munson is now ready to turn the tables on Huston. Meantime, Tierney refuses her father's wishes to leave town, falls in love with Mature, and grows to hate Munson. Huston finally accepts Munson's offer to come to some sort of agreement, knowing full well that he is being blackmailed. She not only tells him what she's learned, but also informs him that she is the wife he left behind in China. Shocked at the news even more than Huston is Tierney, who vehemently refuses to accept Munson, as contemptible as she believes she is, as her mother. The film reaches its conclusion when Munson and Tierney have a raging argument in which mother shoots her daughter.

Based on a racy 1925 Broadway play by John Colton, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was finally made after over 30 attempts by various producers, writers, and directors to get a screenplay past the Hays Office censors. For von Sternberg to get the script through he had to make numerous changes in plot and characterization, though not in spirit. "Mother Goddamm" of the play became "Mother Gin Sling" of the film, the original setting of a brothel became a gambling den, an erotic relationship became a broken marriage, and the daughter's drug addiction simply became a name, "Poppy," which only hinted at her dependency on drugs. What remained was the physical reality, in the form of Poppy, of a broken relationship, the film noir "dark side" of Poppy's mixing of real life and imagination, and the interest in vices--all favorite themes of von Sternberg, and the qualities which make this a von Sternberg film rather than a Colton play. As with von Sternberg's finest films, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE is masterfully photographed and lit, bringing forth a poetic, stylized ballet of movements and gestures which envelop the erotic romanticism that von Sternberg is able to find in the normally seedy gambling casino. The casino is baroquely decorated with huge wall murals painted by actor Keye Luke of "Charlie Chan" series fame. Completed to help foreign producer Arnold Pressburger find a place in Hollywood, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was von Sternberg's last great film, and anything but an easy assignment for the director. As he wrote in his autobiography Confessions from a Chinese Laundry: "Most of the film--though this does not show--I directed from a cot, while lying on my back. Despite this handicap, it launched Gene Tierney and Victor Mature as stellar attractions." The film, however, did not become a great attraction at the box office, turning in only a moderate showing, though it did receive a pair of Oscar nominations--Best Black-and-White Decoration went to Leven and Best Score to Hageman. leave a comment

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