An intoxicating mix of adventure, romance, and pre-Code salaciousness, Shanghai Express marks the commercial peak of an iconic collaboration. Marlene Dietrich is at her wicked best as Shanghai Lily, a courtesan whose reputation brings a hint of scandal to a three-day train ride through war-torn China. On board, she is surrounded by a motley crew of foreigners and lowlifes, including a fellow fallen woman (Anna May Wong), an old flame (Clive Brook), and a rebel leader wanted by the authorities (Warner Oland). As tensions come to a boil, director Josef von Sternberg delivers one breathtaking image after another, enveloping his star in a decadent profusion of feathers, furs, and cigarette smoke. The result is a triumph of studio filmmaking and a testament to the mythic power of Hollywood glamour.
The third dual-layer disc in Criterion’s lovely new box set Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood presents Shanghai Express with a new 1080p/24hz encode in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Similar to Dishonored, Shanghai Express’ presentation comes from a new 4K restoration, scanned from 35mm nitrate prints held by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
The restorations and final presentations found throughout the set are all outstanding, all surpassing expectations. Having said that there just seems to be something extra special about what we get from Shanghai Express, even if it’s technically not the best-looking image to be found in the set, and I think it really just comes down to the photography and the shadows that are delivered. This look is, of course, not unique to this film in the set, but there is something particularly striking in many of the shots in this film, all of which have been translated perfectly here, thanks to the strong black levels and grayscale. The film also comes off a little bit sharper than the two previous films, even in these darker, shadowy shots.
There are still some minor flaws remaining, including some scratches, minor tram lines, the occasional bit of dirt, and what could be the remnants of warping (slight shifts and a wee bit of a wobble are noticeable in a few scenes) but like the other films these are really minor and overall the image is in remarkable condition, restoration efforts having cleaned up most everything. This is then all further enhanced by a sharp encode, that delivers a very film-like texture, rendering grain perfectly and never presenting any obvious digital artifacts. Yet another remarkable presentation in the set.
(As a note: it was pointed out in this site’s forum and elsewhere that dialogue previously missing from the scene where Chang is interrogating Lenard is still missing here. There’s a noticeable splice during the scene, with some more obvious deterioration in the elements around said splice, and there is a clear jump in the onscreen discussion.)
Like the previous films age does hamper the film’s soundtrack a bit. Presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono like the others, dialogue is clear and music sounds fine, but there is a general flatness. There is an audible hiss but it is a bit more controlled in comparison to what we got for Morocco and Dishonored, and again there are no noticeable drops or cracks.
Criterion’s six-disc set presents several supplements spread across each film, some specific to the disc’s respective film and others working as overviews of their work. This review will focus specifically on the supplements available on Shanghai Express’ disc.
This disc ends up only including one significant feature: a new interview with Homay King, author of Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. King talks about this film’s depiction and use of the Chinese setting, which is of course full of inaccuracies and insensitive details, common for films of the time. The problematic elements in the film range from general stereotypes to casting actors in “yellow face.” She does point some positives in the film, though: its use of the civil war backdrop is not entirely inaccurate (though she questions the motivations of some characters) and she gives it props for casting Chinese actors, even giving Anna May Wong a very significant role (all of this unheard of for the time). This, clearly, doesn’t include Warner “Charlie Chan” Oland. Though Wong talks about “Orientalism” and the racist elements in this and other films of the time, she’s not here to decry these films, despite fairly pointing out a lot of problems found in them, but she is instead more interested in sharing her feelings on how one should approach these films today, arguing why one should not be so dismissive with modern eyes. It’s a topic that can very well go past this feature’s 25-minute runtime but King does well here, providing compelling arguments and needed historical context. It’s the only feature here but it’s one of the stronger ones in the set.
Shanghai Express offers another beautiful looking presentation, doing justice to the film’s gorgeous photography. It’s one of the more bare titles in regards to special features, but the sole interview with Homay King is a wonderful addition.