So this is what happens when play-writers, screenwriters and directors do too many drugs. Forget about the psychedelic mess that are The Trip, Tommy, Sweet Charity or even The Science of Sleep and Being John Malkovich. All these films seem to be struggling to reach the real trippy madness that is The Shanghai Gesture, a noir that doesn’t kill you, but has you unsure of whether this is actually happening, whether you survived last night and whether you’re hearing everything correctly. Jon Colton, Josef von Sternberg, Geza Herczeg, Jules Furthman and Karl Vollmöller take gambling, casinos, drug, alcohol and money addictions up — and down — to a weird level, somewhere between comedy and melodrama, horror and ridicule, silliness and meaningfulness. The balance is lost every single second, with one becoming much more prominent than the other in every scene, every line, every twist.
The story is very difficult to pinpoint. Once you think you know what’s going on, you quickly discover that the plot is shifting greatly towards a very different direction and there’s nothing you can do about it. The rules change constantly and you need to keep up, as you’re given the chance to take a close –but smoky and slightly stoned — look into the world of vice that is the casino of “Mother” Gin Sling, a gambling house that is threatened with closure and we just can’t find it in us to care. A Chinese New Year Party with drugs, alcohol, eccentric faces and surreal hairdos is mostly what you’ll find in The Shanghai Gesture, together with crazy twists that will do a great work messing you up.
The gorgeous Gene Tierney is a pleasure to look at, but her performance is just as wild, confusing, stoned and broken as the script and direction are, she can’t save them, so she straight-forwardly joins them. The other three protagonists – Walter Huston, Victor Mature and Ona Munson — are following the same technique, only Ona Munson goes the extra mile of adding a nightmarish coldness to her spider-spirited character that makes every scene she appears in, that little bit freakier. On the whole, no performance is movie-saving, with the only problem being that the film doesn’t make any effort to save itself, fill its gaps, or explain its shortcomings. It wants to be abnormal, bizarre and camp. And it does so honestly and without caring about what anyone thinks.
The pace is slow, so patience is required. Why? Because there is no other way to portray the laziness, constant waste of time, smoke in the air, abandonment in the atmosphere. Tension feels funny when it tries to enter The Shanghai Gesture, and taking time with everything seems much more appropriate. Any meaningful conflict is cut down to the minimum and von Sternberg leisurely moves his camera from side to side, from face to face, showing his audience everything, but making a point out of nothing. Lavish gowns, chandeliers, impressive jewelry and extreme makeup are the main story and the plot’s background, the ultimate goal and the obstacles, the protagonists and the side characters, the reason for watching this film and for feeling sick.
Josef von Sternberg’s film is mesmerising chaos. Extravagance walks hand-in-hand with decadence, wealth with emptiness and beauty with shallowness and extreme boredom. The characters are cramped in one place and time, one speaks on top of the other, they’re left with no room and no fresh air. There is beauty, there is luxury and vice, there is also pain and loss. The Shanghai Gesture mocks and sympathises, presents and interferes, but more than anything, messes you up and laughs at your face.
The Shanghai Gesture at IMDb
The Shanghai Gesture at Wikipedia
The Shanghai Gesture at Rotten Tomatoes
The Shanghai Gesture (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb