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A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by "Mother" Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy Charteris, wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year. Under orders from Gin Sling, who has found out Poppy is Charteris' daughter, the smarmy Doctor Omar leads Poppy deeper and deeper into an addiction to gambling and alcohol. Gin Sling, realizing that Charteris was her long-ago husband who she thinks abandoned her, plans her revenge by inviting Charteris to a Chinese New Year dinner party to expose his past indiscretions. Charteris, however, has a suprise of his own to spring on Gin Sling.
Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture is one of the most perverse portraits of decadence to squeak past Hollywood censors. Set in a Shanghai of crowded, claustrophobic, and gloriously phony street sets, Sternberg tells the tale of the criminals and aristocrats who inhabit "Mother Gin Sling's," a gambling house of seedy opulence where the bored rich and desperate poor congregate to lose their money and possibly their souls. Into this world wanders the thrill-seeking Poppy (the elegant Gene Tierney), a haughty girl infatuated with the club's sleepy-eyed gigolo-poet, Omar (Victor Mature, at his lazy best). "We buy and sell everything in the most honorable manner," he purrs to Poppy while luring her further into debt. When Gin Sling (Ona Munson) discovers the girl's secret, she uses her as part of an elaborate revenge against millionaire Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), a Shanghai businessman with his own dark secrets. Though this came out a year before Casablanca, it plays like a twisted, fun-house mirror reflection of that film, a corrupt paradise in world of meaningless bustle, empty gestures, and easy virtue. Sternberg's languid pacing gives the film a stuck-out-of-time quality, with a story that slows and eddies while the film lingers on the sleazy decadence (suggested, rather than shown, in sly, subversive flourishes.)
Unfortunately the source print is substandard, splotchy, and full of speckles, with a soundtrack layered in hiss. At times it's like looking at the film through the veils Sternberg was so fond of. --Sean Axmaker
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The movie suffers from extremely poor editing, jumps around from scene to scene as if something was left out or filmed so much out of sequence that it couldn't be conjoined properly. It also makes little sense after all is said and done. If nothing else, the movie highlights the debauchery, arrogance, pomposity, class differential, and self-indulgence of the upper crust Europeans who temporarily dared to claim Shanghai (and so much of China at that time) as their own. Aside from the performance of Ona Munson, the appearance of the 19 or 20 year old Gene Tierney was at least partial compensation for enduring this DVD.
This story was watered down, so it goes, to get around the Hollywood censors - and nothing is left. There's not a character to care about (except maybe Dixie). Victor Mature is SO bad, it's amazing he had a career at all.
Doctor Omar: I'll have the cook send up a brace of thousand-year-old eggs. Do you like them soft?
(obscenely stagy eye-roll)
(stagy exit through low door)
Other reviewers have pointed out, astutely, how 'pre-code' this movie seems, even though it was released in 1941. In fact, in its relentless doubling down on corny dialogue with stagy, vaudevillian eye-rolling and shoulder shrugs, it seems a throwback to an even earlier era. "You want comic relief?," Von Sternberg asks. "I give it. I give it 'til you CRY."
What can I say? It works. SHANGHAI GESTURE is as ridiculous as SHANGHAI EXPRESS is sublime, and yet it is spell-binding. Gene Tierney is gorgeous as Poppy, but the unsung Phyllis Brooks (as the Chorus Girl) makes a nice Elvgren to her Vargas. Walter Huston, as Sir Guy Charteris, may not seem British at all, but is superb as an elder executive. Veteran Swiss actor Albert Bassermann also shines as the urbane Commissioner.
This movie is completely offbeat (literally?- dig that crazy timing), and does not appeal to everyone, but it blew me away the first time I saw it, and I watch it again every so often, with renewed appreciation.