#66. Shanghai Express (1932)

shanghai express.jpgMarlene Dietrich’s “widely-dispersed sexual favors” are said to’ve been pretty torturous for director Josef von Sternberg, with whom she was having an affair and who was himself prone to torturing Dietrich right back – along with all of his other actors – by being a perpetually raging dickpenny who, on the set of Shanghai Express for instance, lost his voice from screaming at the actors so much and thus, as a substitute, installed a surround-sound speaker system so that, hissing into a microphone, his demands would still go booming at the cast and crew from every direction. Their affair was passionate, and mutually abusive, but it was super productive, too; the stereotypically tortured artist-muse affair.

Von Sternberg and Dietrich made seven films together (of which only one other, The Blue Angel, also appears on the List; it comes just a couple years after von Sternberg’s silent exploration of middle-aged heartache in Docks of New York) and while the final installments of their collaboration aren’t held in such high regard as the early stuff, are said to sort of curl in on themselves, the creative relationship is mentioned on par with De Niro and Scorsese, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, the likes.

Shanghai Express is a really good movie that feels like a play, though I can’t explain why. It’s self-contained, it unravels, it’s got an interesting cast of distinct characters who respond to all the action in their own way…why does this feel so unique to the 1930s? I think it’s the absence of, say, an action beat on every tenth page of the script. A character-driven political thriller that’s also largely a romance with maybe a touch of arthouse.

I like the movie, as I said, but I also thought it was a little slow and when I’d zone out for a couple seconds here and there it was usually to dwell on the artist-muse relationship between Dietrich and von Sternberg and how, for a long time, I romanticized that sort of affair until I kinda found myself involved in one (and I’ll emphasize “kinda” because the work that came out of it wasn’t worth your attention). This was with Marianne, whom I’ve mentioned a couple times before. She wanted to be an actor at the time and maybe she still does. I wanted to do something creative with her and so, when she explained to me one night that there aren’t nearly as many interesting monologues for women to perform as there are for men, I started writing monologues, like four- or eight-page exercises in voice. Embarrassing. Marianne claimed to like them but of the four that I wrote I’m like 90% sure she only read two. We met with another friend of mine named Y. who wanted to be a filmmaker at the time, maybe she still does, and over drinks at Ale House we made all these plans to film her (Marianne) performing one of these monologues but it never happened. In the end it was just one of those projects you talk about with your friends over drinks. But when she moved away I wrote one more of them and called it “Cerberus” and that one got published, which was nice.

shanghair express dietrich and sternberg
Von Sternbeg and Dietrich

Anyway. I was obsessed with Marianne and when she left I was still obsessed for a long time after but it faded, mostly, and when we spoke on the phone for a few hours recently I felt those old feelings come back but ultimately it was clear, after a couple days, that our lives had gone too far down their respective paths to ever cross again. To ever gel. Which is probably a good thing.

Look at a relationship like von Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s, though, and we can all agree that yeah it was super unhealthy, torturous, but it seems to’ve been characterized too by a passion that gave birth to some remarkable work and, grueling though that passion can be, it’s certainly very lively. Walk around with that ever-changing shroud over your head, that perpetual oscillation between pain and exaltation, and you’ll never doubt you’re alive. Which I think that, sometimes, even the happiest of us are inclined to do.


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