Opinion on The Shanghai Gesture (1941) by Josef von Sternberg seems to be divided in the blogsphere. Some see it as wonderfully camp, the perfect cult film, while others hail it as a masterpiece of decadent noir. I enjoyed it mostly for its incredible sensuality, and atmosphere of erotic decadence, and for its outright oddness at times. Of course, Gene Tierney, my newest cinema hearthrob, was fabulous as the petualnt, spoiled rich girl (alias Poppy Smith) doomed by her bad blood.
When she first comes to Mother Gin Sling’s casino (yes, that’s her name) she is overjoyed to be there. She tells her nerdy companion that “Every place you’ve taken me before this was like kindergarten…It has such a delicious evil smell…I thought such a place could only exist in my dreams...” Just watch the video linked to the top image; it’s all there.
The action is set in a casino that seems like a modern recreation of Dante’s circles of hell. At the lowest point, there is the roulette well, around which people loose their fortunes, their virtue, and sometimes shoot themselves – usually on Saturday nights.
Poppy sets to gambling, saying she can stop anytime she wants, but she can’t. It doesn’t take much for her to be sucked into the vortex of gambling, sex, and probably drugs. Although it will seem tame to audiences used to seeing any sort of sex and violence on screen, the film was heavily censored, and still manages to convey a sense of sadism and utter debauchery as Mother Gin Sling manipulates Poppy for her own ends. Victor Mature, as “Dr.” Omar, is happy to help out, picking up the sexual favors he craves along the way.
The pace of the film is slow, sometimes excruciating. There are sequences that seem to go on two or three times as long as they need to. When two old fogeys try to approach Poppy at the bar, they are shooed away by Omar. The rotate about one another once, twice, three times before they make off…why?
Poppy plays hard to get…for a minute, and the falls hard for Omar, who has nothing to offer her except sexual charisma. When she begs him for forgiveness after throwing a drink in his face in fit of jealousy, he enfolds her in his cape, looks both ways, and then dives in for the kiss. (Kisses are simply lips to lips in this censored cinematic realm.)
Much is often made of Mother Gin’s outrageous hair, but I think it suits her. She just dares anyone to gasp, “What the hell was she thinking..?” She’s no-nonsense, and all about power and domination. Her costumes and hair are part of the game, and it has worked well for her. When she appears on the stage of her casino floor, the soundtrack swells with orchestral music.
Yes, the dialogue is often absurd, the Chinoiserie is ridiculous, but it reeks of opium and sex. And I must say, the very ending did surprise me. Mother Gin Sling is quite a gal.
She makes sure that all of her dinner guests have the dishes they need, and she includes an appetizer for the men – a view of girls in cages being bid for in the street during the New Year celebration. By the time Polly is ushered into the room, disheveled and sullen, swaying a bit unsteadily in a dress that fits like her skin, we can only guess what she’s been through…
The culture clash between the Chinese and the West has its typical Hollywood silliness – Mother Gin Sling and many other Chinese characters are played by Americans and Brits – but a running gag of the film is the fatuous arrogance of the Westerners towards the ‘natives’ of Shanghai. At one point, a young, handsome Chinese servant delivers a message in perfect English to a group, and one Brit cackles, “Listen to how these Asiatics attempt to imitate the language!“ No one around him is laughing.
And what about that title? I didn’t hear a clue about its meaning in the film, except for the red herring of when Mother Gin Sling asks if a certain man used a certain gesture, raising his arm to the ceiling, when she was trying to be certain of his identity. The movie is based on a play of the same name, and according to this book, it’s a very old phrase of uncertain meaning. Perhaps it is related to the kookie sequence at the dinner from hell when Dixie, the American floozie who finds work at the casino, hams it up, thumbing her nose with a spoon. This essay by an academic provides a new twist for the meaning of the phrase, and analyses the use of Chinese themes in noir along the way, but it doesn’t explain its original meaning.