Made after THE BLUE ANGEL/’30, but released before (in the States), the second Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg film (of seven) marks a tonal shift from Berlin coarseness to Hollywood finesse and blissed-out romance. Conjured out of Paramount backlot artifice by Sternberg (working as his own art director?) and cinematographer Lee Garmes, the heat between provocative down-on-her-luck cabaret singer Dietrich and long-drink-of-water Foreign Legionnaire Gary Cooper is palpable. So too the humiliation & erotic abasement of Adolph Menjou’s wealthy also-ran suitor. (Sternberg’s de rigeur coitus-denied alter-ego, softened from the Janning’s sadistically dominated professor of BLUE ANGEL, to Menjou’s obliging masochist, thriving thru regret.) The pacing remains Early Talkie languorous, if much smoother than in BLUE ANGEL; all moonlight, shadows & coded action. But with so much atmosphere, and with such striking people to stare at, who could mind? Two films on, in SHANGHAI EXPRESS/’32, Sternberg would hit on a near perfect balance of wit, charged romance & suspense, with miraculous pacing that helped set the modern standard, achieved without background score. But this heavenly kickoff, with it’s memorable Jules Furthman dialogue, is essential stuff.
DOUBLE-BILL: For some reason, SHANGHAI EXPRESS is a tough get on home video. Go for Dietrich & Cooper reteamed in DESIRE/’36 (with director Frank Borzage doing the honors on this Ernst Lubitsch pic since he was running the studio at the time). It comes with one of Dietrich’s best songs, ‘Awake, In A Dream.’
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Dietrich made two of the best ever examples of mise-en-scène in the last shots of this pic, and of Lubitsch’s much underrated ANGEL/’37, both with her striding on the diagonal thru a static frame. Each could serve as definition of the term.