The collaboration between filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich is one of the most enduring in all Hollywood cinema. Tasked by Paramount bosses to find ‘the next big thing’, director von Sternberg lighted upon German silent star Dietrich and brought her to Hollywood. Successfully transitioning from the silent to the sound era, together they crafted a series of remarkable features that expressed a previously hitherto unbridled ecstasy in the process of filmmaking itself. Marked by striking cinematography, beautiful design and elaborate camerawork these vibrantly sensuous films redefined cinema of the time, while Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous on-screen personas caused a sensation and turned her from actor to superstar and icon. Lavish, lascivious and wildly eccentric, the films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made for Paramount Pictures in the 1930s provide a unique testimony to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The six films that von Sternberg made with Dietrich in Hollywood are presented here in new restorations on Blu-ray for the very first time in the UK. Containing a wealth of new and archival extras – including new appreciations, interviews, audio commentaries, rare films, outtakes and deleted audio, documentaries… and more! This stunning box set is strictly limited to 6,000 units.
Disc number three in Indicator’s box set Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount presents Shanghai Express in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Indicator is making use of the same 4K digital restoration that Criterion used for their own edition, which was scanned from 35mm nitrate prints held by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The disc is dual-layer and is also encoded for region B, so viewers in North America will require a Blu-ray player that can playback region B content. It has also been encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition.
Similar to the presentations found in Criterion’s set each one gets progressively better as you go through each title. And similar to my reaction to Shanghai Express in the Criterion set, even if it may technically not be the best-looking presentation, there is still something extraordinary about what we get here, and I still think it just comes down to how the shadows are ultimately presented. Of course, the photography across all of the films is similar but I just find a large number of shots in this film are more memorable and impactful, and the high-definition presentation we get here perfectly renders the tonal shifts and grayscale. The rich deep blacks that we get also don’t hurt.
Though a soft focus is applied often throughout the details levels are still quite stunning and sharp, and the film’s grain structure (which is noticeable but not all as heavy as I would have expected) looks spectacular, no artifacts or block patterns present. The same print flaws remain: scratches (which can get a bit heavier and here and there), bits of dirt and debris, and slight warping pop up, but it’s still not all that heavy. The film also still has a jump cut during the sequence where Chang is questioning the French officer, a small section having been removed (according to the script the dialogue revolves around Chang threatening that the officer will be shot if he doesn’t tell the truth, and it’s not clear why this was removed).
So no, no clear bonus with this presentation in comparison to Criterion’s but I’m still quite blown away with just how wonderful the film still manages to look and Indicator encodes it beautifully.
Again the film is presented with a lossless PCM 1.0 mono track and like Criterion’s it’s fine but still a product of its time. Dialogue is clear and music sounds decent but it’s still very one-note and flat. There is an audible hiss in the background, but it’s not as noticeable as what was found on the previous two titles, and there are also no severe problems like pops or drops.
Though Criterion’s supplements in their set did a good job looking at the working relationship between Dietrich and von Sternberg, the supplements got noticeably slimmer as one made their way through the set and each film received less individual attention. On Criterion’s release Shanghai Express only received one notable supplement, an interview with Homay King addressing the film’s “dated” (the friendly way to put it) representation of the film’s Chinese setting, while also talking about how Hollywood of the time presented Asian culture in film. Indicator has something a bit similar here but they go a bit more out of their way by also including a couple of other things.
The big feature here is a brand new audio commentary featuring David Thompson, who opens the track by clearly explaining which David Thompson he is (not David Thomson). While he does get into material covered elsewhere throughout the set (like how the director and star met, the creation of the Dietrich persona, von Sternberg’s early silent work, and other personal details) the track does primarily focus on the film, with Thompson going over production details, talking about the cast (Eugene Pallette’s history proves the most interesting), and touching on the film’s depicted time period and its attempts at using Asian imagery to make the film, I guess, more exotic (during the opening Thompson notes it creates the feel of a “kitsch Chinese restaurant”). He even notes some anecdotes from the set (though admits its possible a lot of stories aren’t true) and also explains the material missing from the interrogation scene. Despite some lengthy dead spots it’s a good track, though maybe a bit too academic and scripted, lacking the same energy found on the track for Morocco.
Indicator then includes another introduction by the director’s son, Nicholas von Sternberg. This is one of the shorter ones at only 4-minutes, von Sternberg just offering some details about the film and its cast, though makes the point that his father, who talked about everyone he had worked with, rarely talked about Anna May Wong, if ever.
I found that an interesting point and figured that maybe von Sternberg just didn’t know her all that well, but Jasper Sharp’s 24-minute interview about Wong clearly indicates that wasn’t the case, von Sternberg having met her well before Shanghai Express was even a thought. At any rate, Sharp talks about Wong and her career, particularly the limitations she faced because of her Chinese heritage (despite being a third generation American), and working in Hollywood during a time where there were actual laws in place limiting what she could do. Sharp talks about the representation of Asian culture in Hollywood at the time and how this effected Wong, with her being limited primarily to roles where she was a “dragon lady” or prostitute before getting somewhat better roles later one. She was also “not Chinese enough,” which sadly limited her options in other ways (apparently people were caught off guard that she spoke perfect English with an American accent!) Focused more on Wong, Sharp doesn’t cover all of the same material Homay King did in her interview on Criterion’s edition (she addressed a number of stereotypes in the film itself) but Sharp still offers a clear idea of the ridiculous hurdles Wong had to make her way through just to get half-decent work.
Indicator then closes the disc with an image gallery, navigable using the remote. It features about 40 stills consisting of production photos, lobby cards, and posters.
Ultimately Indicator provides a far more satisfying collection of supplements for the film, with the commentary filling in the large gaps left by Criterion’s.
Like the other discs in the set (so far) the presentations are solid and no different from Criterion’s, but Indicator’s is beating them out in regards to supplements, offering far more satisfying material on each individual film.