Shanghai Gesture1941

Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture is one of the most perverse portraits of decadence to squeak past Hollywood censors. Set in a Shanghai of crowded, claustrophobic, and gloriously phony street sets, Sternberg tells the tale of the criminals and aristocrats who inhabit "Mother Gin Sling's," a gambling house of seedy opulence where the bored rich and desperate poor congregate to lose their money and possibly their souls. Into this world wanders the thrill-seeking Poppy (the elegant Gene Tierney), a haughty girl infatuated with the club's sleepy-eyed gigolo-poet, Omar (Victor Mature, at his lazy best). "We buy and sell everything in the most honorable manner," he purrs to Poppy while luring her further into debt. When Gin Sling (Ona Munson) discovers the girl's secret, she uses her as part of an elaborate revenge against millionaire Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), a Shanghai businessman with his own dark secrets. Though this came out a year before Casablanca, it plays like a twisted, fun-house mirror reflection of that film, a corrupt paradise in world of meaningless bustle, empty gestures, and easy virtue. Sternberg's languid pacing gives the film a stuck-out-of-time quality, with a story that slows and eddies while the film lingers on the sleazy decadence (suggested, rather than shown, in sly, subversive flourishes.) Unfortunately the source print is substandard, splotchy, and full of speckles, with a soundtrack layered in hiss. At times it's like looking at the film through the veils Sternberg was so fond of. --Sean Axmaker

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