Shanghai Express is a 1932 American film directed by Josef von Sternberg. The pre-Code picture stars Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, and Warner Oland. It was written by Jules Furthman, based on a story by Harry Hervey. It was the fourth of seven teamings of Sternberg and Dietrich.
The film is memorable for its stylistic black-and-white chiaroscuro cinematography. Even though Lee Garmes was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, according to Dietrich, it was Sternberg who was responsible for most of it.
Shanghai Express has been remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1942) and Peking Express (1951).
In 1931, China is embroiled in a civil war. Friends of British Captain Donald 'Doc' Harvey (Brook) envy him because the fabulously notorious Shanghai Lily is a fellow passenger on the express train from Beiping to Shanghai. When the name means nothing to him, they inform him that she is a "coaster" or "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast", in other words a courtesan.
On the journey, Harvey encounters his former lover, Magdalen (Dietrich). Five years earlier, she had played a trick on him to gauge his love for her, but it backfired and he left her. She frankly informs him that, in the interim, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." As time goes on, she makes it clear that she still cares deeply for him. It soon becomes apparent that his feelings also have not changed.
Among the other passengers are fellow coaster Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), zealous missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), inveterate gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), boarding house keeper Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), and a mysterious Eurasian, Henry Chang (Warner Oland).
Government soldiers search the train and arrest an enemy agent. Immediately afterwards, Chang sends a coded telegram. Later, the train is taken over by rebels loyal to a powerful warlord, who turns out to be Chang. Chang questions the passengers, looking for someone important enough to exchange for his valued aide, the man who was taken earlier. He finds what he wants in Harvey, who is on his way to perform brain surgery on the Governor-General of Shanghai.
While waiting, Chang offers to take Shanghai Lily to his palace, but she claims she has reformed. Overhearing from the next room, Harvey breaks in and knocks Chang down. Because he needs Harvey alive, Chang swallows (but does not forget) the insult and leaves them alone. He then has Hui Fei forcibly brought to him to spend the night.
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