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Highly censored film is packed with erotica and loads of Occidental intrigue

August 30, 2009

By Jimmy Gillman

Jimmy Gillman
Shanghai Gesture, The
United Artists; 1941; 97 minutes; Not rated, but contains sexual situations, violence and adult themes; Directed by Josef von Sternberg; Starring: Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Walter Huston, Phyllis Brooks, Albert Basserman and Maria Ouspenskaya; Screenwriter(s): Jules Furthman, Geza Herczeg and Karl Vollmoeller







It’s easy to understand why noted director Josef von Sternberg wanted to make “The Shanghai Gesture.” Its lurid story, mysterious characters and exotic setting were a perfect fit for the kind of cinema he had mastered with such classics as “The Blue Angel,” “The Shanghai Express” and “The Scarlet Empress.” Like those films, “The Shanghai Gesture” involves a plot built around a glamorous, seductive and potentially dangerous woman; in this case a young Gene Tierney instead of von Sternberg stalwart Marlene Dietrich.


Based on John Colton’s controversial 1925 play, the project must have also appealed to von Sternberg’s fascination with criminal underworld forces and characters of nefarious means much like those he saw growing up in war-torn Vienna and on the raucous streets of New York’s Lower East Side, where he spent much of his youth after his family emigrated to American.


In Tierney, von Sternberg no doubt found an actress with enormous erotic appeal, someone around which he could make come alive the kind of cinematic milieu he had become famous for in his films featuring the sultry Dietrich.


In “The Shanghai Gesture,” Tierney fills the critical role of Poppy with great allure, projecting a puerile vulnerability and weary wanderlust that reflects her character as both victim and temptress. And von Sternberg knew just what to do with those innate qualities, using his camera to capture her raw sexuality and unbridled eroticism from every angle to enhance her appeal in what is an elaborate story of ambition and revenge.


Set in a notorious Shanghai gambling den and house of prostitution run by the infamous Mother Gin Sling, “The Shanghai Gesture” revolves around a British consortium’s efforts to have the establishment closed down so the group can redevelop the property and line their own pockets. That consortium is headed by Poppy’s father, (Walter Huston), who figures it will be easy to wrestle the property away from Gin Sling, only later discovering that those efforts will reopen old wounds and lead to complications that make the unethical undertaking far more costly than he had imagined.


Adding to the film’s Occidental atmosphere are Victor Mature, as an Arab con man whose allegiance shifts like the wind; Phyllis Brooks, playing an amoral prostitute whose sentimentality is only superficial; and Ona Munson, as Mother Gin Sling, the woman who is literally at the middle of everything (symbolized by her club’s famous circular gambling pit), and whose cunning will be used against friend and foe alike.


Requiring more than 30 revisions before it was sufficiently toned down to pass Hollywood censors and receive certification, “The Shanghai Gesture” is still a potent and decidedly adult look at tangled lives and broken promises, mounted with great precision and dripping with atmosphere and foreign intrigue.



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Film Grading Key

A+ Can't get any better

A Outstanding

A- Superior effort

B+ Very good

B Good

B- Still worth watching

C+ Strictly iffy

C Waste of time

In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

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