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Depravity in an Exotic Locale.,
This review is from: Shanghai Gesture (DVD)
"The Shanghai Gesture" is often regarded as an early film noir. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it noir. Maybe proto-noir. It embodies some noir conventions and defies others. "The Shanghai Gesture" is a dark story of revenge and greed among seedy underworld characters. But the underworld is in Shanghai, not in the urban jungle of World War II-era America. The story takes place when Shanghai was an international city, part of the British Empire, "a refuge for people who wished to live between the lines of laws and customs", as we're told in the introduction to the film.
The film's first scene shows us a street in Shanghai populated by colorful characters from every corner of the globe. Then we enter "Mother Gin Sling's Casino", an opulent gambling house where Asian, European, Indian, American, and Arab patrons come to be entertained and where no one likes to talk about his nationality. Most of the film takes place in this exotic casino where shootings are commonplace and no law exists except for that of the proprietor, Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). One evening, Mother Gin Sling is informed that she must close her establishment and move to another part of town. This district of the city has been purchased by a conglomerate that intends to renovate it. Not too concerned about the problem, Mother Gin sets about finding a way to bribe or threaten the new owner, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) into letting her stay. That same evening a beautiful young woman calling herself Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney) visits the casino. A pampered and overprotected rich girl straight from finishing school, Poppy is looking for adventure and danger in the "wicked city". With the encouragement of Doctor Omar (Victor Mature), a slick, poetic ladies' man who works for Mother Gin Sling, she finds too much of it. But everything that goes on in Mother Gin Sling's casino is to her purposes, which will be revealed at a dinner party on the Chinese New Year, attended by Sir Guy and Shanghai's powerful people.
"The Shanghai Gesture" was originally a play by John Colton, and sometimes it feels stagy. Written for Broadway in 1925, the story tries to bring together all manner of vice in an irresistibly exotic location, which is nothing if not entertaining. The most enjoyable performance in the film is probably that of Phyllis Brooks as tough chorus girl Dixie Pomeroy, who has landed in Shanghai and has to make the best of it. She's got spunk and most of the film's best lines, although she's a minor character. Gene Tierney is generally convincing as a spoiled rich girl who is transformed into a raving junkie. And she radiates star power. Ona Munson is always upstaged by her outrageous coiffure.
"The Shanghai Gesture" hasn't fared well with critics, but it was never intended to be great writing. This is salacious popular entertainment, the stuff of pulp fiction. We have a pretty young woman in an exotic environment who jettisons all propriety and succumbs to a lifestyle of debauchery. In a grand style. And to her own ruin, of course. Shanghai? International intrigue? Gene Tierney? I can't help but be entertained, even if the film is a bit ridiculous.
The DVD (Image Entertainment disc): This isn't a pristine print of the film. It has some white specks, although not enough to be distracting. The sound needs to be cleaned up, but the only major problems are during the dinner sequence. It's very watchable, but it needs some work. The only bonus features are text filmographies for director Josef von Sternberg and four members of the cast.