Vintage Pulp Jan 15 2013
SHANGHAI SURPRISE
Westerners undone yet again by the inscrutable Chinee.


The Shanghai Gesture is a movie we were excited to see. It’s a Josef von Sternberg directed vehicle adapted from a John Colton play (though neutered due to Hays Code worries), with Gene Tierney starring alongside Victor Mature, Walter Huston, Ona Munson, and Phyllis Brooks. Von Sternberg makes almost fetishistic use of his main asset—the luscious Tierney—by showing her in such extreme close-up you’d almost think it’s her breath fogging the lens, rather than one of the diffusion filters mid-century filmmakers utilized to shoot their female stars. A few minutes after she appears, as she observes the decadent tableau inside a Shanghai casino, she pulls out this line: “The place smells evil, like a place where anything can happen.” We’d suggest that if a place smells evil, something already happened. Blame the nearest person. Or the dog. Anyway, when Tierney makes her observation we understand pretty quickly that it’s going to be about her, a flower of Western purity, and her headlong descent into Oriental flooziedom.

All well and good, but the filmmakers fall prey to the type of easy characterizations that the best movies of the period were learning to avoid. When you observe, for example, the mostly respectful depiction of a character like Sam in 1942’s Casablanca, it becomes difficult not to cringe at such excesses here as Ona Munson's Chinese character MotherGin Sling entering rooms to the sound of a gong, or Walter Huston’s Sir Guy Charteris—a supposed old hand in Asia—querying Mike Mazurky with, “You speakee Chinee? Cantonee? You breakee window?” Did Westerners in China back then really say things like that? We’re dying to know. Mazurky gets the last line in the film, tossing off a smug echo of one of Huston’s earlier questions, and at that moment he’s a sort of stand-in for all Shanghai, which by now we know is a place where white people meet their ruin, but still—“You speakee Chinee?” The unintentional humor of such moments undermines the believability of the entire enterprise.

Another problem for us is that Victor Mature comes across as singularly unappealing. He’s not supposed to be a nice guy, but depriving him of any shred of charm makes it hard to believe Tierney would desire him. In any case, the script requires this and other indignities of poor Gene, and soon her fall from grace is so complete she even loses her mellifluous upper class accent and starts braying like a donkey. Yes, there’s some good here. Tierney is spellbindingly beautiful (one reason so many people thinkthis movie is better than it really is, we suspect). Some of the interiors are excellent, especially Mother Gin Sling’s baroque circular casino. A couple of the set pieces are striking, such as when young women are hoisted in baskets above a crowd of men clambering to buy them for their flower boats—i.e., floating brothels. And Huston is solid in his portrayal of Charteris. But all in all, The Shanghai Gesture is strictly so-so.

Incidentally, the movie is widely labeled a film noir, but it really isn’t. Yes, it can be difficult to say definitively whether a film fits into a certain category because “genre” is a nebulous concept to begin with, but we submit that this one is well off the mark, no more a noir than is The Lost Weekend, or for that matter Casablanca. If we’d known in advance it was a run-of-the-mill melodrama—yes, an exotic one, but also clunky and unengaging—we would not have expected the cutting cynicism and visual wit that characterize so many film noirs. If you go into it expecting something more along the lines of a B-picture, then The Shanghai Gesture might entertain. But whatever you expect, don’t think you're goingto see von Sternberg or Tierney doing their best work. At top you see the original American promo poster, and below that some production photos. The Shanghai Gesture premiered in New York City on Christmas 1941, and went into national release today in 1942.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
April 29
1945—Hitler Marries Braun
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1967—Ali Is Stripped of His Title
After refusing induction into the United States Army the day before due to religious reasons, Muhammad Ali is stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. He is found guilty of a felony in refusing to be drafted for service in Vietnam, but he does not serve prison time, and on June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses his conviction. His stand against the war had made him a hated figure in mainstream America, but in the black community and the rest of the world he had become an icon.
April 28
1947—Heyerdahl Embarks on Kon-Tiki
Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his five man crew set out from Peru on a giant balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki in order to prove that Peruvian natives could have settled Polynesia. After a 101 day, 4,300 mile (8,000 km) journey, Kon-Tiki smashes into the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947, thus demonstrating that it is possible for a primitive craft to survive a Pacific crossing.
1989—Soviets Acknowledge Chernobyl Accident
After two days of rumors and denials the Soviet Union admits there was an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Reactor number four had suffered a meltdown, sending a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area. Today the abandoned radioactive area surrounding Chernobyl is rife with local wildlife and has been converted into a wildlife sanctuary, one of the largest in Europe.
April 27
1945—Mussolini Is Arrested
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci, and fifteen supporters are arrested by Italian partisans in Dongo, Italy while attempting to escape the region in the wake of the collapse of Mussolini's fascist government. The next day, Mussolini and his mistress are both executed, along with most of the members of their group. Their bodies are then trucked to Milan where they are hung upside down on meathooks from the roof of a gas station, then spat upon and stoned until they are unrecognizable.

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