Release Date: December 25th, 1941 (New York City)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Josef von Sternberg, Geza Herczeg, Jules Furthman
Based on: The Shanghai Gesture play by John Colton
Music by: Richard Hageman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson
Arnold Pressburger Films, United Artists, 99 Minutes
“The other places are like kindergardens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! 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…” – Poppy
The Shanghai Gesture is a very early film-noir, as it came out the same year the genre was considered to be born: 1941. The same year that the world got to experience Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for the first time. This isn’t as good as those motion pictures but it is still enjoyable enough.
Now a lot of critics and fans of noir hold this in pretty high regard. While I like the film, I don’t really think of it as a classic in the style.
It’s a slightly better than average romantic drama with some mystery and an exotic location thrown in. It also stars Gene Tierney, a few years before capturing the hearts of men in Laura. With Tierney in the forefront, there is a certain level of legitimacy added to this picture, due to her talent.
The technical side of this film is pretty impressive. The casino, where a big chunk of the film is set, was designed to resemble Dante’s Inferno – sort of mirroring the fall of man and in many cases with this film, the fall of woman. The other sets and the costumes also have a real opulence about them.
Additionally, the film is well shot. It doesn’t quite have the stark chiaroscuro cinematography that would become the norm in film-noir but it had a similar tone without strictly adhering to what most associate with the genre’s visual style.
Gene Tierney put in a solid performance as a young rich girl who arrives in Shanghai and quickly falls from grace thanks to becoming an alcoholic. She had help in her fall from Ona Munson’s “Mother” Gin Sling, who wanted to ruin the girl as part of a revenge plot against the girl’s father, an ex-lover.
Ultimately, this is a morality tale but what wasn’t back in the 1940s?
The Shanghai Gesture is a pretty picture and it has some good acting, a visual elegance and nice cinematography but I did find it to be fairly boring. It’s a good technical achievement for the time and it advanced the career of Tierney but I just didn’t find a lot to get excited about.