“I didn't think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. Anything could happen here... any moment…”
Set in the wilds of Shanghai during a time – but not in the present- when no one wanted control over the town and everyone went wild The Shanghai Gesture is a tale of vice and revenge. Many nationalities, not just Chinese, crawl among the streets to mingle in vice and corruption together.
One place where the low of Shanghai crawl together is a casino run by “Mother” Gin Sling. Gin Sling is a powerful and seductive woman who worked her way up from poverty to an extravagant, seedy lifestyle. She holds a great power to manipulate people’s thoughts and emotions to her whim.
A young girl who goes by the name of “Poppy Smith” comes into the casino one night. She is a young spoiled rich girl completely taken with the casino and its inhabitants. A young charming Arab named Dr. Omar (“Doctor of nothing, Miss Smith. It sounds important and hurts no one. Unlike most doctors”) seduces Poppy and she completely falls for him. Gin Sling learns that Poppy’s real name is Victoria Charteris and her father is a man named Sir Guy Charteris who is planning to have her and her casino evicted and torn down to make way for development. Gin Sling remembers Charteris from long ago when he left her and never came back.
Gin Sling plans her revenge against Charteris. She has Omar seduce Poppy and drive her into an addiction of alcohol and gambling. Poppy falls hard for Omar and becomes insanely jealous that an American girl, Dixie, has been hanging around him. She owes the casino a lot of money but she will not go to her father so she gambles her expensive jewelry. Charteris confronts his daughter telling her that Omar has given the jewelry back and has explained what has happened to Poppy. Her father sends her back to England… or so he thinks.
The ending is all very interesting and tense. A reveal at the end is told. Throughout the film I saw part of the ending coming and was not really surprised by the reveal but if you do not see the reveal coming you will like it. Put it this way, Gene Tierney has a bit of an exotic look and once Gin Sling learns who Poppy’s father is I had it figured out.
The great German director Josef Von Sternberg directed the film. Sternberg was famous for using the art of German Expressionism to tell his stories he has a very painterly way of framing his scenes and creating colorful characters. The cinematography plus his artistic eye adds much more seediness and corruption and grime to the story. The story is based off a play that for many years was banned by the production codes to never be made into a film. The gambling and alcoholism for one were almost enough to send the code overboard but there is a lot of sexual undertones that in the play explores more in depth. You can clearly see where the production put a stop to the sexual side but there are many scenes, lines, and body movements to suggest more has been going on than what we are allowed to see. I like this touch of ambiguity it makes the story and the characters more seductive and powerful.
I downloaded The Shanghai Gesture just to see Gene Tierney. When she made this film she was twenty-one years old. As always she was completely gorgeous so incredibly stunning, her eyes were so beautiful in this film you just want to keep staring at them and not look away. Von Sternberg turned Poppy from a breath taking beautiful sophisticated woman into someone you could no longer stand to look at and just wanted her to go away. Once Poppy turns into a drunk, loose woman all you want is for her to get what she deserves, she does but not in a way that you could see coming. I was a bit shocked for like five seconds and then I thought well that’s what you get!! Poppy reminds me a bit of Tierney’s character in Leave Her to Heaven a few years later. Poppy definitely attests to Tierney’s acting ability if one minute we like the character and the next she is doing a fabulous job making us not like her.
The rest of the cast does very well. Ona Munson is delectably wicked as “Mother” Gin Sling. Although not Asian in the slightest the makeup and costume department did a wonderful job making her look exotic. If you are a true classic movie nut like me you will notice the croupier from Casablanca is also the roulette croupier in this film. I noticed it was him right away from the way he said (possibly) “no more bets” in French.
The Shanghai Gesture is an early Noir from 1941. You can clearly see the coming of the genre and the characteristics of it: there is corruption and vice, a femme fatale who drives others to do what they normally would not, a tale of revenge and vice, a seedy view of the world from the ones who live in it. The Shanghai Gesture is an understated and under watched classic film. Although not one of the greatest films and slightly boring at times The Shanghai Gesture is worth viewing especially for the moral and sexual ambiguity and the ending.