Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pure Laudanum: Criterion Marlene Dietrich Set Review - Part 1: MOROCCO, DISHONORED, SHANGHAI EXPRESS


If you're looking to worship a higher power of your choice in this screwed up age, may I suggest it be via the church of the recently released Dietrich-Von Sternberg Blu-ray set from Criterion? It has all six films they made in Hollywood (mit aus der Blaue Engel) before going their separate ways, changing times forcing such extravagant subtlety to disappear from the world's collective screens. Luckily we have these six. If you don't worship these movies, thou art no lover of cinema, monsieur! You love only escape or reality. These films are neither realistic or escapist, except in the purest, sense, like if most cinema was aspirin, these would be pure laudanum. This is a one-way trip, this is cinema for 'suicide passengers,' as the captain tells Adolphe Menjou in the opening scene of the opening film: it's a succinct intro to the fatalistic appeal of these films. They are falling into the black abyss of perfect beauty, high as all hell, knowing you'll never get back up again.

I know God loves me even as I plummet; I prayed for this set (you can find my prayer back in a 2013 review of Scarlet Empress here) The set also includes great essays from writers like the incomparable Self-styled Siren, and glorious Gary Giddins (even if you don't know a thing about jazz, his jazz reviews percolate like great jazz). As for me, now that it's all here, there's not much I can add to their insightful comments... But I can call back to the one academic source that would have made the set complete, even if its focus might be a little too involved or risque. Without it, actually, all the critical pontificating is sorely imbalanced. I refer of course to the "masochistic spectator" theory (the counter to Mulveyan male gazing) championed by the great feminist film theorist Galyn Studlar (see my Verboten Masochist Supplement from this past July).

So let me use this occasion to my obsessive worship of Dietrich's glorious features, clothes, and otherworldly cool as seen through the Studlaryan masochistic eye of Josef Von. Come with me and examine these films, one at a time, in their new setting and format. For even though I've seen them all dozens of times, no matter how many trips to the well, these remain unwaveringly cool and intoxicating draughts, especially the first three. Good lord almighty, thanks. 

Giddins' essay points out that the six films can really be separated into two parts - the first three films being all of a piece in presenting Dietrich as a single super-cool character. The second three find Dietrich stepping into different characters altogether, each sharing some of Dietrich's elegant nonchalance but each also trapped in the trappings of conventional womanhood and the soap opera arc (except maybe the last one, which is more the dawn of Bunuel and paranoid sexuality.) Following the paths of her fellow women stars, stuck in endless female market-aimed sagas of rags-to-riches heroines, mothers torn between domestic drudgery and fancy parties, girls forced into prostitution to pay for the baby's medicine, only to have their rich absentee dad swoop in to grab the child later and proclaim her an unfit mother, etc. etc. Maybe because I'm a man I'm not much of a fan of those types of films; I never like seeing Dietrich play a character unworthy of her larger-than-life uber-grace. 

Luckily, the first three Dietrich films in the set feature her as amongst the coolest of all the cinema's characters, unrepentantly larger-than-life in her man-manipulating and suicidal tendencies, both chameleonic and unflappably sublime within herself. No other actress came close to her weird cool until the arrival of Lauren Bacall in 1944 (who even borrows the "to buy a new hat" line from Morocco as if in tribute, as if to announce that finally, after over a decade, a worthy heir).

I'd go Giddins one further and add they could all even be a trilogy. With the lover in all three films being essentially the same man, an officer rising from private in the Foreign Legion, to colonel in the Russian Secret Service, to a chief surgeon in the British army in Shanghai Express. In each, the level of maturity and game playing grows and falls just a bit, in each she in turn grows, finally reaching a kind of happy ending happy-ever-after, even if it is with a stodgy British officer.

MOROCCO 
(1930) ****
Criterion Image: B

When I first started watching the Criterion Morocco (1930) my heart sank. I was hoping the HD upgrade would include a remastering, leading to a deeper blacks and less faded grayness. But Criterion often just adds a lot of grain and leaves it at that. This one is basically exactly the same as the old DVD, maybe even a little softer, as if the smoke and bright lights were making everyone slightly blind. Well, at least now Morocco finally has the setting it deserves, even if some of us still dream there's a better upgrade waiting to be struck.


Like the next two films in the collection, Ms. Dietrich begins the film as a world-weary cooler-than-cool seducer of men, larger-than-life and beyond anyone gender, belonging to no one woman or man. Here, as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, she begins the film looking mildly bedraggled, on a boat arriving into Morocco's port (a suicide passenger - they're always a one-way trip, notes the captain) to play an extended cabaret gig. Before she even gets off the boat, she's been sized up by Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) and he makes his move. He's not an officer this time, (2) just rich, classy, and influential in the affairs of the French-occupied city. He's also not the jealous kind. He's far too well-bedded to have any illusions. He gives her whatever she wants, slavishly, and even drives her to find her real love when he's wounded.

Amy's1 real love is Legionnaire Pvt. Brown, played Gary Cooper, he's the male version of her, i.e. a figure all the girls are in love with, who never says no to a proposal, and as a result is juggling everyone from his commanding officer's wife on down to the Arab girls jangling their bangles out the windows to him, arranging rendezvous via hand signals while he stands at attention in the winding streets with his regiment. Like Amy, Brown is free from all illusions about love and the opposite sex, yet he still has a rock-solid sense of honor. Though reticent, in that lanky Cooper way, he's not above sticking his neck out to the point of even making veiled threats to his senior officer about naming his own wife in the investigation of an attack on Brown and Jolly (orchestrated by her in a fit of jealousy). While the officer notes "I appreciate you trying to keep my wife's name out of it," he nonetheless names her and then takes Brown out on a death march, there to follow him into the thick of Arab snipers, ready to shoot him in the back and make it look like an accident if the snipers don't get him first. Luckily, an Arab bullet nails the CO and relieves Brown's problem. Yet Brown, ever the cool customer, is not one to rejoice such a loss. This is just blind luck. He doesn't go AWOL and race back to Amy's side like some punk - to do so would inevitably ruin him in her eyes (as it would Charles Boyer in the 1936 Garden of Allah). Used to girls throwing themselves at his feet, his not making any forward advances on Amy becomes Brown's ultimate transgression. For her, his presence is so intense she wants him to leave or to leave him mere minutes after they're in the same room. When he first arrives at her little studio apartment ("it looks different... now," he notes, indicating he's had trysts with singers there in the past - it's clearly a room the club keeps for their touring attractions). For her part, she adds "there's a Foreign Legion of women, too... but we have no wound stripes" as if evoking the invisible lash welts so coveted by cinematic masochists. He leaves, but of course she follows soon after, anxious for another parting, and it's there in the streets, such as they are, that the trouble begins. If they'd stayed in her room, they'd have been fine. But of course one can only say goodbye once or twice there. These two need to say goodbye constantly, like an addiction.



It's actually Cooper and Dietrich that have the most touching romance of all in the six films because both are masters of the small gesture, and Dietrich would not find someone so attuned to that aspect of acting again (the way he always nearly bumps his heads on the low doorways etc.) and the quick exit. Each exhibits the reticence of real feelings vs. showing practiced ease with glib seduction and, through it all, finding a way to practice a strict abiding moral code, a real even Hawksian (or certainly Jules Furthian) moral code, vs. the bourgeois morals of marital fidelity. In each other, Jolly and Brown find someone who feels as they do - with the same sense of dissolute sluttiness coupled to unshakable honor. Both of them are used to stirring up feelings in the opposite sex way more than they themselves are stirred up; they're comfortable just easing back and letting warring lovers slug it out between them. But now, instead, they're too evenly matched. Neither one is the aggressor (at least not successfully), maybe they forgot how. They only know how to evade real feelings: "you better go now. I'm beginning to like you," she tells him. It's the ultimate compliment, to kick him out because she likes him. His ultimate compliment retort "I wish I met you ten years ago." The only way to prove he does mean it is to leave. Hooking up with her would just prove that it was a phony line. His only way of proving his love, to make it real, is to leave before anything even gets started.

It's hard to go back in time to remember my ambivalent feeling about all their reticence the first few times I saw Morocco. I didn't quite get it and thought both of them were being chumps, and that the censors were behind their lack of connection, but at the same time, I was in a long distance love affair, tortured by longing, and yet every time we got together in person we were just friends, no spark -but we still loved to hang out, and then after she left I would chalk up to my being too shy to bust a move. We were madly in love only by phone and email (I won't name names, but you know you are). Now that I'm older and such romances are a national pastime thanks to the arrival of the internet, that self-induced torture seems absurd (3) but understandable in ways it wasn't. Now I get the ever-parting sacrifice aspect of Morocco. This is what cinematic love really is, in a way, something that cannot exist in its object's physical presence. We can fall in love with Dietrich, and even Cooper, but we can't take them home. They don't even see us, there in the dark, yet they stir something good in us. This is not a lusty film where we're meant to ogle or get excited. This is a film of dares and defiance, where no one acts just how some mundane dinner guest might expect. Rather than live as the wife of the wealthy la Bessiere, Amy kicks off her high heels and follows her man into the desert on a long march, barefoot into the ever-blowing desert winds.

Some critics have said this renouncement marks Amy's suicide/ death as she won't survive out there- will be left behind, etc. I used to think it was so romantic, but now I don't think anything is really over. No doubt Monsieur La Bessiere will wait a bit under the arch, for her feet get a few blisters. She'll probably just sit down and wait expectantly, for his car to drive up. He will. We can tell in the way La Bessiere drives her around to check on Brown in all the army hospitals after hearing he's been wounded. (why these guys have to hike everywhere when there are supposedly roads for fancy limos is anyone's guess - just joining them of your own free will suggests a unique kind of masochism). And in his gentlemanly handshake of 'may I wish you good luck?'

Their key encounter, Brown and Jolly, is when she finds him not at the hospital but at the local bar, sitting there with a cute Arab girl in his lap, who's wearing his hat, no less (a kind of subtextual mirror to Amy's male gender signifier-appropriating m├ętier), while he drunkenly carves Amy's name into the table with a heart around it. When Amy finally finds him, he covers it up with scattered playing cards. He receives her coldly, and she adjusts her frantic tone appearing suddenly nonplussed, only mildly surprised to find him there. The best he can offer as a warm greeting is another evasion --as his company is called back to the barracks before a long march -- "Come see me off tomorrow" (his regiment leaves at dawn). She does see him off, of course, though for these night owls getting up at dawn seems yet another masochistic indulgence.

This weird dichotomy of absence/presence is our first taste of Von Sternberg's masochism elevated above simple debasement. The loss of the love is the goal even more so than actually being with the other --thus deserting his outfit and running away with Amy Jolly to the Riviera is a nice idea but would ruin their love, turning it into just another pair of attractive scammers on the make, when in this masochistically unfulfilled state, it could blaze on forever (so he writes on the mirror--"I changed my mind. Good luck!" - and she later admires it as a kind of to-the-point eloquence unusual for a soldier). There's a mirror of this, a cautionary tale of the other option-- in Garden of Allah, Boyer is from a holy order of monks, hooks up with Dietrich, breaking his vow of celibate devotion. Eventually he's guilt-tripped into returning, but at least gets to taste the sweetness of life outside the monastery. Nonetheless, the intensity of their love increases in the frustration of the absence, and his willingness to flee his vows to be with her is what paradoxically lowers her high regard for him. And then there's the movie Von Sternberg and Dietrich made in Berlin, The Blue Angel, wherein the professor runs away to join the show and marry Naughty Lola, and winds up as the clown enduring Chaney-esque humiliations onstage and lumbering through the audience after his wife's performance, peddling the same dirty postcards he was confiscating earlier while an esteemed professor. We can't imagine that same fate for Cooper, yet what else would he do if the left the service? Sell apples? His honor would be gone and soon she'd be pregnant, admonishing him for not having a job while he drank and fumed.

Another unique touch: as their romance develops, each character talks in that measured careful way that one can't quite tell is something JVS thought was sexy or just what what the early sound equipment demanded (in 1930 the fewer words... in a line of dialogue... and the more pauses... the better), the feeling is that a lot of emotion is being withheld in those pauses, and that's largely because the leads themselves are so luminous, their silence speaks volumes, and the sound effects around them so intoxicating. As with their previous collaboration, The Blue Angel, what the actual dialogue might be limited by in terms of clarity does not effect diegetic sound (of which, like Fritz Lang in M, Von Sternberg was an early master): bird calls, distant Arab singing, chanting, Islamic prayers, and idle conversation outside windows, the slow arrival and fade of military bugles and drums (1).  The crowd scenes especially in Von Sternberg's mise-en-scene carry far more complex movement and little termite details than we find almost anywhere else.

This is also, surprisingly, one of only three times Dietrich will sing in a cabaret in the films (the other two being Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman) and it's a shame there wasn't more such scenes as she clearly belongs there. It's where she got her start (when she had to cancel her violinist career due to wrist issues); the songs in this hot Morocco club, with the fans and the orchestra leader with his tuxedo collar popping out, the jacket off, wiping a big cloth on his forehead with his baton hand (also holding a fan), are so iconic we wish the film was an hour longer and just included her whole set (like Criterion's MONTERY POP box does for the Hendrix and Otis Redding peformances). Imagine what that would be like her just singing and wandering around the club, playing off the varied clientele, for a full forty minutes or so --that would be some kind of outtasite Heaven!

LATEST VIEWING - May 27, 2019

First time noticing the lusty eating of the apple shot when we get a close-up of Cooper's first few bites; the topless native girl we only get to see flashes of as the legionnaires march past in the beginning, forming a kind of kinetoscope of her foxiness; noticing the ghostly way Dietrich has of staring at Cooper even as she closes the door, as if she's trying to be a ghost or hypnotize a cobra. The screen is always packed with detail, the way his arms are full of girls as she comes to say goodbye, me wondering if masochism in cinematic language really began with von Sternberg. Was this all because he was so jealous of Dietrich's endless parade of lovers, of which he was but one? Stories are told of his hanging out on her lawn in Hollywood, painting landscapes while Gary Cooper's car rolled up for a tryst; Cooper apparently suffered this too, and would mope around in a kind of possessive funk. He didn't get the whole German polymorphous kinkiness of the situation, how Dietrich was still married and would send her husband (Rudy Sieber) in Germany all her various love letters for archiving. How she and Cooper or whomever would tryst with Rudy and his longtime mistress in exotic locales for menage a quatres, or whatever. Of course the story comes from a novel but it's the language of the maoschistic specatator being created. 

DISHONORED 
(1931) ***1/2
Criterion Image: A-

A loose re-telling of the 'possibly true' story of the other (i.e. not Mata Hari) WWI sexy super spy  'Fraulein Doctor' (see also 1968's Fraulein Doctor), this starts out with Dietrich as an Austrian war widow-turned-streetwalker living at a Viennese apartment house/brothel where despair and gas-powered suicide are so common the cops barely shake off their rain-soaked ennui long enough to make a tsk-tsk noise as they carry another one out, but Dietrich, watching from across the street, won't say die. Her unflappable cool and stubborn loyalty to a country that's forgotten her leads her to be recruited as special agent X-27 by secret service man Gustav von Seyffertitz. First she hits a streamer-packed masquerade party, uncovers the treachery of military bigwig Warner Oland, gets a load of Victor Maclagen playing the clown and talking through his teeth, and later gets information that sends 'thousands of Russians to their deaths' while wearing no make-up and making cat noises. Posing as a maid servant in the Russian border HQ, it takes even us awhile to realize that's her. Damn girl, what make-up will do. Nonetheless she's aces at getting a colonel drunk enough while playing tag that she can spy on his papers after he passes out. Her prowling black cat gives her away (Mclagen remembers it from his midnight visit through her window), but he can't kill her until the dawn (there are rules!), so there's one of those magic dissolves to the snowy night woods, indicating sex has occurred, maybe (even pre-code had a code, and that's it). And soon she's back in HQ playing out the plans in a scene that no doubt inspired Hithcock's similar one in Lady Vanishes. 

Either way, the role of female James Bond fits Marlene well. She and her Russian op counterpart McLaglen are like advanced serpentine predators in a world of clueless prey. They are keen observers and always five moves ahead of the pack, yet Dietrich is dumb enough to keep her spying orders (uncoded) in her coat pocket where McLaglen can find them, read them, replace them, and promptly head off to try and catch her in the act on the front line hotel where she's headed. He's also dumb enough to accept a drink from her, though she patiently waits until the very last minute to drug him, seemingly resigned to her fate. She really is unafraid to die, and that's one of the reasons he finds her so exciting. "Hope you're on my side next war!" is his equivalent to Brown's "I wish I met you ten years ago."

He could easily have killed her on the spot instead so it's clear that, while not exactly collaborating, McLaglen and Dietrich make it pretty for the other to escape when they fall into each others' clutches. In this they're a bit like Adam West's Batman and Julie Newmar's Catwoman... Apparently, that's how the KGB and CIA were with each other back in the day - rather than keep killing each other, they'd swap enough secrets, turn each other into double double agents, share enough tidbts to make their bosses happy, then lean back and get drunk together. I mean, that's the smart play, after all. Why kill each other over this shit? If either side wins, you're both out of a job.


And that's partly the problem for Dishonored's detractors, of which I used to be one: we were appalled that this sensitive seductress would deliberately sabotage her own sworn duty by letting someone as leering and one-dimensional as Mclaglen's Russian spy escape during her interrogation, and then not even deign to answer the charges of collaboration against her during the military tribunal. They desperately want to cut her a break but she won't help. The best she can do is say "I've lead an inglorious life, it might be my good fortune to have a glorious death." So she never got far from that Viennese gas jet asphyxiation suicide state of mind after all.

I always imagine her adding the word 'scene' at the end of that sentence: to have "a glorious death scene," for it's always clear that in these films there's no such thing as a 'happy ever-after' because somewhere along the line Von Sternberg has turned us into frustrated lovers, longing--not unlike the odious Johnny in the latter BLONDE VENUS--for the sort of happy ending American directors love but sophisticated jaded intellects like Von Sternberg can't take seriously. We think we'd love to see X-27 back on the case, keeping a date with Mclaglen at some monastery after the war, like Constance Bennett's spy in After Tonight - or do what Myrna Loy does as the same character (Fraulein Doctor) in Stamboul Quest (though ideally not with smirking American tourist George Brent) or--ideally--to do as Suzy Kendall playing the same role in Fraulein Doctor, end the film laughing sardonically in her nurse disguise on her way to safety after watching a whole frontline of French soldiers choking in agony via gas she stole from a French female chemist during a lesbian tryst (if a female chemist making WWI poison gas sounds familiar, you maybe saw Wonder Woman? It's all connected). What we get instead, is both inspiring and downbeat, agonizing and cool.

The cool aspect comes from how--in the JVS-Dietrich-verse-- it's not about happy ever after but all about how you handle yourself at the end of the film, for that's the echo, that's what people remember, the ghost image, like the imprint of a dead man's pupils recording the last thing he saw. X-27 knows her masks are all there is to herself (and even her peasant disguise -- not wearing make-up at all-- is a mask) and so only in a similarly mask-within-masks super spy like Victor can she find an equal. Through her nonchalance (and even rapturous smile - left)  in the face of immanent death she's able manipulate the conscience of the firing squad, but she does so only with the ambivalent curiosity of a cat playing with a box of regimented mice, she doesn't especially want to go on. The Dietrich in the JVS movies knows she has only 90 minutes in which to exist so she may as well go out on an impaled-butterfly-pin high rather than preserve herself in some uncertain happy ever-after of old age make-up and caterpillar drudgery. Her Dishonored death pleases her for the same reason it frustrates the whole secret service (and us): her inability/unwillingness to explain why she let the prisoner escape (I think in El Dorado they'd call it "professional courtesy"). Just as becoming X-27 helped her shed her prostitute guise, the firing squad becomes a chance to shed the movie altogether. That she'd want to escape all mortal coils and comforts for some barely spoken maybe-not-even-love sends the patriarchy into masochistic fits. ME too! Throwing away money and power over men away in favor poverty and oblivion in the name of some undeserving but very tall smirking lover --it makes me want to scream!

But then the young officer leading her to the wall has his outburst about it and it just sounds childish. He's led away and a different officer takes his place immediately. Von Sternberg has the last chilling laugh.

Only when starting the film over at the beginning immediately after the ending does it make sense in a Mulholland Drive-style Moebius strip way. The snow of the backyard firing squad wall gives way to the rain of the courtyard to the front street, the snow dawn to the rainy evening - as the asphyxiated body is lifted outside ("She didn't even leave enough for the gas bill" notes a sardonic landlord) by the cops. We first see her watching the morgue wagon parked in the pouring rain in front of the building, seeing it perhaps as a kind of nihilist prom limo, and she knows it's stopping for her not long from now. She knows the girl in the coffin is destined ere long to be her But her ethical code doesn't permit suicide, so she must wait until her death scene can be proper and glorious, with a weeping audience of young soldiers to perform it for. This is the one mask that can't come off, because to pull it resets the whole damned show. In the space where that Paramount logo mountain tag provides the Alpine breather, here alone Dietrich can fly free. Naturally she wants to get back to it asap.

The Criterion Blu-ray image is intoxicating as the steep curve upwards I was expecting with this set begins to kick in after a so-so start with Morocco. Her Ziggy Stardust-style masquerade attire sparkles like an obsidian sky beflecked with diamonds and as no doubt JVS hoped when meticulously filling the screen canvas, the ever flowing streamers and confetti of the ball scene, as it plays out on two levels at the same time, glistens so that every streamer is clearly visible and separate from its neighbors. X-27's fancy apartment now attains a nice cavernous dream-state 3D quality and the elaborate study of Warner Oland's traitorious general carries extra masculine gravitas.

--
 SHANGHAI EXPRESS 
(1932) - *****
Criterion Image: A-

"I wish you could tell me there'd been no other men."
"I wish I could, Doc. But five years in China is a long time..."

Second in my heart only to His Girl Friday as far as sending up the harbingers of decency, this not only has a great pre-code Paramount jazz score, bullfrog-voiced Eugene Palette, Warner Oland, and Gustav von Seyffertitz getting tortured for the crime of shutting off fans (a major offense since I always watch this in deepest summer), and Dietrich--never lovelier--but Anna May Wong at her most coolly exotic, passing back the prim boarding house matron's business card with a cold stare, sharing the compartment with Dietrich, playing the gramophone and turning their shared space into a den of stylish cool like we imagine Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg might have while traveling together on a Rolling Stones tour circa 1966-7, wandering into some dream version of Paramount's already surreal champagne-and-opium 1932 via some kind of Donald Cammell time warp.

Oh saints of alternate reality, would that Von Sternberg and screenwriter Jules Furthman made a dozen movies with Wong and Dietrich luxuriating in their car in her long black silk gowns, listening to jazz on the portable gramophone and smoking stylishly, barely speaking between themselves but sharing that "professional courtesy", wrecking dozens of souls all along the China coast, the dutiful reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) trailing behind to help turn the broken, desperate men towards god before they blow their brains out, but never never judging them because, when the chips are down, even Shanghai Lily prays, and beautifully.

That Carmichael turns from ranting about the train's "cargo of sin" to sticking up for her against Clive Brooks shows he's the most dynamic character in the film, the only one who demonstrably changes his opinion, because he puts his money where his mouth is. It's hard not to be moved by his gruff assurance to her that God is "on speaking terms with everybody." This is where Von Sternberg blows the mind, along with masterful Jules Furthman on the script, as he did with Morocco (and so many of the best Hawks films, making us wonder if its Furthman, not Von Sternberg or Hawks, who supplies the unique sense of moral code his characters share, a moral code leagues above the petty sense of bourgeois 'decency' uptight prudes mistake for morality, but a true chivalrous code where a word is as good as a bond, and death isn't flinched from even though it's known all too well).

The whole first half of this film is a glorious ribbing of censors, colonialism, and British prudery, only to reverse the flow later by having the Henry Davidson harrumpher turn over to Shanghai Lily's side of things, and the train to at last reach the station. I watch it every summer, sometimes more than once, with all the fans blowing high on me (to spite that loathsome Gustav), rapt in a unique kind of midnight ecstasy.


(
PS - 2017 re-viewing
): The ultimate rationale for why artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade, what I come away this latest viewing is how frozen in cigarette ad abstraction is our Major Harvey. His banter with Dietrich is like a long secret code, repeated in abstract mantra form like some Karloff Latin mass, the cigarette smoke like holy incense. She's an exotic danger to which his only defense is to freeze in place and betray no desire. She too mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow. (from EK's all-time favorite - top 25, - #4 after Big Sleep, The Thing and His Girl Friday)

(PS - 2018 re-viewing on Criterion Blu-ray): A cleaned-up sparkly Blu-ray of Shanghai Express is still only marginally more satisfying than the past DVD from TCM, though the blacks are much deeper and obviously special care was taken for the key iconographic moments, like the one above, the shadows of the darkened train compartment now glisten with 3D velvet obsidian against which the silky white of Marlene's face gushes in rapture. The opening and closing scenes of her with the black feathered boa and veil now show the sharp plains of her face like some creamy cliffside or glistening creamy Ivory soap bar. The twinkle in her eyes and glistening of the black feathers carries an intoxicating electric allure. The added sense of depth allows us to revel in the layers of activity in each frame (even inside the cars, the foot traffic past the compartments continues; waiters and porters get in the stars' way, and the backgrounds are alive with comic bits so fast an innocuous it takes years of viewings to suss them out.)

ASIATIC EXTRAS (Blu-ray Extra):

Especially in films of white colonialists swept up in Asian affairs, like Shanghai Express (as opposed to, say, The Good Earth), exotica is the rule, and a chance for art directors to go nuts with foreign bric a brac and religious iconography. Exotica, in the term of using the cultural art and style of another country as pure 'other' decor-is still super common. Just walking down the hall at work to get tea just now I passed an office where I could see a little Krishna statue amongst on a fellow staff member's desk --their sole connection to Hinduism being, maybe, a yoga class. I have a Buddha head on my desk though have never even entered a Buddhist shrine. What would we feel I wonder to find Jesus souvenirs sold to Buddhists as souvenirs? Everyone needs a dashboard suction cup Jesus or a Jesus on the cross pencil holder! With Christ being no more than an exotic piece of souvenir detritus.... how would we take it?

In the words of  Kali Bahlu, "Oh Buddha, I'm so confused!"
---

The first three films in this set--as we have seen--get steadily more beautiful and unabashed in their unconventional Weimar decadence-meets-Hollywood opulence pre-Breen/pre-Hitler libidinal freedom. They stand tall as ahead-of-their-time pictures of fallen women who--as opposed to say some saintly working girl ala Joan Crawford or Loretta Young--remain unabashed by their state, never judging themselves for wrecking men up and down the China coast, or buying into the condemnation of the 'moral' right the way, say, Loretta Edwards or Joan Crawford, or even Mae Clarke over at Universal (in Waterloo Bridge). They don't let themselves be treated poorly the way Jean Harlow goes along with being expected to stay out of sight when a 'decent' Mary Astor shows up in Red Dust). Dietrich's characters would never renounce their past (the only thing Shanghai Lily would do different after five years as a 'coaster' is not bob her hair), they know that--as fellow Paramount star Mae West put it--"when women go wrong, men go right after them." So often only the boys can be bad and not be punished for bucking convention. But in these films, it's character that counts, and though she's a high end prostitute 'adventuress,' Lily clearly has her own form of integrity way beyond that of most proper ladies'. When she agrees to leave with Chang to save Harvey's eyesight, she knows she must stick to it ("a man is a fool to trust any woman," notes Chang, "but I believe a word of honor would mean something to you") and would, except for Wong's timely knife. That she lets Harvey think she wanted to is proof of her daunting moral code. So often in the world of exotica films (especially, say, the Todd Browning/Lon Chaney pictures, or Al Jolson sagas), love means debasement and loss of identity. In the Dietrich films love may claim lives, and even reputations, but never honor. And the opinion of Yorkshire pudding-making matrons and doctors of divinity in service of mankind don't even rate on that scale. Menjou's masochistic patient suitor in Morocco gets it, and so plays the rules. When he wishes Cooper's legionnaire "good luck" on his march, you believe he means it. "You see," he tells his dinner guests, "I love her."

Man, we know the feeling, the loss of her presence in whatever capacity is felt like a pain. The "End" is going to swallow her up from our sight no matter if we beg and plead like infants or stand tough and game-faced like soldiers, like worthy lovers, like... her. Bye-bye, or rather au revoir... auf wiedersehen... bis spater. Bald, hoffe Ich, sehr bald. 

Aber, bitte mit kein kindern? 

end part 1
NOTES:
1. The sound of a distant diegetic tribal drum was a common atmospheric thread amongst colonialist dramas, often either based directly on W. Somerset Maugham works (The Letter, Rain, The Narrow Corner) or inspired by their success (The Road to Singapore, Mandelay, White Woman, Red Dust) . It could denote anything from a native uprising to a chief's son at death's door ("when the drums stop," as --- notes in Black Narcissus -- he's dead") but often served as a kind of voodoo call towards a pair of errant lovers, a kind of manmade version of howling wind or monsoon rain. 
2. but once again he's he so often is in these sorts of films, all of which fall into a kind of loose romantic triangle: the handsome private in love with a beautiful nurse or singer coveted by his superior officer or just a rich, influential, older man with the power to transfer him to some dangerous, remote outpost, ala Prestige, Farewell to Arms, Friends and Lover
3. Lacan really helped with this, too. Understanding that the pain of absence really is the reward of love, that the objet petit a structures the whole foundation of the self - attaining it leads to depression and disillusionment which can be a reward unto itself, setting you free to--in the words of Lou Reed--find a new illusion. 

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