Friday, June 02, 2023

Tonight's Movie: The Shanghai Gesture (1941) at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival

I saw five new-to-me films at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in mid-May.

The first four, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, were DECOY (1945), THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947), DIAL 1119 (1950), and SCANDAL SHEET (1952).

The fifth film was THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941), and while I didn't exactly hate it, I was, as I wrote recently, baffled by it. When the film ended I had a feeling of "What on earth did I just watch?!" Indeed, the festival program refers to the film as a "melodramatic fever dream."

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was written and directed by Josef von Sternberg (SHANGHAI EXPRESS). Novelist James M. Cain, incidentally, was among the uncredited contributors.

We were honored to have the director's son, Nicholas von Sternberg, present for the screening, along with Victoria Mature, daughter of one of the film's stars, Victor Mature. They're seen here in conversation with festival host Alan K. Rode before the movie.

We were also very fortunate to see a restored 35mm print on loan from George Eastman House. We truly had the very best possible circumstances seeing this film.

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was a United Artists film which had its U.S. premiere in New York on Christmas in 1941; it went into general release in January 1942.

The story takes place in a Shanghai gambling palace owned by Gin-Sling (Ona Munson). I would add here that the art direction by future Oscar winner Boris Leven (WEST SIDE STORY) was the thing that most impressed me about the film; there's a stunning overhead shot of the casino early in the film which is a real "wow."  Although I was lukewarm on the film, it might be worth seeing strictly for the visuals.

The goings-on in the casino include an affair between a wealthy young woman, Poppy (Gene Tierney) looking for thrills; she has an affair with Omar (Mature) and falls into the throes of multiple addictions.

Ultimately it's revealed that Poppy is the child of Gin-Sling and Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is trying to force Gin-Sling to move her gambling establishment. The convoluted plot will not end well for most involved.

This 95-minute film has an odd story and is surprisingly dry given the dramatic potential in the setting and material. It's very theatrical and never feels authentic or involves the emotions, though the interesting staging captures some attention. A shot of a door opening to reveal Tierney at a banquet was a particularly striking moment.

The young Tierney does her best but it might not have been the best part for her to tackle that early in her career, and Mature is surprisingly enigmatic as her manipulative lover.

Munson, known for playing Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), is strangely unexotic as the somewhat terrifying Gin-Sling; she has oddball medusa hair which stands in stark contrast to her flat American intonations. (Munson's casting as a Chinese woman was, of course, common for the era.)

Perhaps I was tired but Huston just didn't register with me much, and when the film finally ended I simply felt, "Well, that was sure different!" I'd almost like to see it again sometime just to see if I feel any differently about it on a revisit. The movie has great components, including two favorite lead actors, but it never quite comes together as a whole.

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was filmed in black and white by Paul Ivano. The supporting cast includes Phyllis Brooks, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore, Mike Mazurki, and Albert Bassermann.

This film has been released on both VHS and DVD.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

I saw Shanghai Gesture on a television screening, and your summation makes perfect sense, but I was taken with Victor Mature, if not the part, his presentation, and presence. It was clear the road ahead for him would be stardom.

9:54 AM  

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