Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Shanghai Gesture

The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941) So, what would happen if a film-stylist like Josef von Sternberg had directed a programmer like Casablanca? It would be a lot like The Shanghai Gesture (made a year before Ilsa walked into Rick's), with a disparate group of diaspora all gathered around a central community house—but, instead of Rick's Cafe Americain, it's Mother Gin-Sling's Casino, a casino of ill-repute that the Shanghai city-fathers (all white, all Brits) frequent with abandon, even while they're plotting to get rid of it ("I am shocked, SHOCKED that gambling is going on in this establishment!") The script is by von Sternberg, Gerza Herczeg, and Howard Hawks' scripter Jules Furthman, with emphasis on the smart-aleck remark, witty patter and easy irony.  The script is smart, the acting mannered (but in the von Sternberg manner of haughtiness and exaggeration for effect), and everything else from costuming, set design, and photographic style is elaborate.

Boris Leven's design for Mother Gin-Sling's Casino resembles a multi-level Pit of Hell
The men are von Sternberg's collection of stiffs, drones, and leering rakes (heck, von Sternberg turned Gary Cooper into one of the latter in Sahara). Walter Huston plays the stiff, a reforming developer who runs afoul of Mother Gin-Sling, while the latter is in the form of Victor Mature's "Dr. Omar," a Muslim "doctor of nothing," except one assumes, for a memorized expertise on "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."

The women are von Sternberg's complicated, well-lit archetypes, more devils than angels, the way he used Marlene Dietrich.  They had to do a lot of cleaning up of the original play by John Colton, resulting in a "coded" film that "suggested" what was really going on.*  The original location was a house of ill repute—a brothel (hinted at by the caged women ringing the casino's playing area, which, as designed by Boris Leven, looks like the Pit of Hell), the floosie (Phyllis Brooks) that Omar picks up in the street is a hooker, not a "dance-hall girl, in the play "Mother Gin-Sling" is named Mother Goddam, and the addiction the young thrill-seeker Gene Tierney plays isn't gambling (as in the film), but drugs, as suggested by her name "Poppy."  So, yes, a lot of self-censorshp, but sophisticated audiences could see through the veiled references to see what the issues were.

Von Sternberg was a stylist with an emphasis on glamor photography—his work with Dietrich is some of the most scrupulously accomplished shadow work in movies—and his capturing of Ona Munson, Brooks, and especially Tierney is a tightly controlled use of light to emphasize the contours of the face.  Munson's wild hair-styles suggest nothing so much as a medusa, and Tierney, once she slides down the slippery slope of..."too much gambling" begins, in her body language, is all broken doll, a marionette with some strings broken (something foreshadowed by von Sternberg early on)

Both Curtiz and von Sternberg had penchants for filling up the screen-frame, but Curtiz kept things naturalistic, with his performers squarely rooted in specific places.  Von Sternberg's close-ups are frequently floating heads, backed by a light pattern that has nothing to do with their surroundings.

But, that's where comparisons end: The Shanghai Gesture is a bizarre bazaar of weirdness, a combination of kitsch and creepiness, a glamorized descent into degradation and venality (beautifully shot, though!), with possibly the worst example of mother-love demonstrated on screen.  It is the dark side of entertainment, gussied up with glamor to make the proceedings seem tolerable, something that could be said for all of the work of von Sternberg, master of both light and darkness.

The Shanghai Gesture is also unique for giving a credit to the extras.

 * Furthman was great at that: in The Big Sleep he and Hawks suggested nymphomania by having the character suck her thumb.

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