The Shanghai Gesture

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The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Directed by Josef von Sterberg

The unabashed and almost flippant garishness of The Shanghai Gesture is what draws one in immediately. A dress isn’t just a dress, it is a lavish gown hung elegantly on the shoulders of Gene Tierney. A light bulb isn’t just a light bulb, it is one of many cascading sparkles drifting from the ornate chandeliers. Mother Gin Sling, the vocal point of the film, is the animated version of a decorative Chinese nick-knack you might find on your grandmother’s shelf. She is sleek, and graceful, as she slowly, and deliberately delivers every line. Every character is much more than the surface immediately reveals, he or she is a brash, cynical portrait of self-absorbed bitterness, dangling from their past. All of them appear wild and free among said surroundings, but they are prisoners of debt, some debt is monetary, most are lies they’ve fooled themselves into believing.

In his typical fashion, Josef von Sternberg loves to cram every detail he can imagine into every frame of this film, from meticulously painted walls, to scores and scores of loud and colorful extras, crowding and plugging up every gap of the frame. At certain points you wait for people to start fumbling over each other.

The first shot of Mother Gin Sling’s casino mimics a bustling bee hive. The casino is set up in an open cone shape, with different levels offering different games. When we first set eyes on it, we can’t decipher what is happening; we hear a multitude of different languages being shouted over one another, casino chips clapping together, workers sprinting from one end to another, and hundreds of dapper men and women, glistening under the chandeliers. This sets the tone for the entire film, as each scene has brilliant sparks of chaos.

It doesn’t take very long before we are mesmerized by each character. They carry themselves through the chaos with grace and ease, all of them distinctively beautiful in their one way. They are very detailed like everything else in the frame, but they are all so very empty. They’re hollow ornaments set against the backdrop of decadence, searching to be filled. Von Sternberg emphasizes this pain in every close up. He allows us to measure the creases in their faces, the tinge of pain behind their forced smiles, and the slight waver in their voices. Soon, every detail crammed into each frame comes to represent a loss or regret. The overall breadth of each setting mocks the characters and their emptiness.

Like a layer cake, von Sternberg just keeps stacking, one beautifully cluttered moment after another, until finally it comes crashing down in a shocking plume of cold soulless dust. The remaining characters move on, having lost something, but they continue to live as always, fully prepared to bury any pain with lies.

– James Merolla

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