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SHANGHAI GESTURE, THE (director/writer: Josef von Sternberg; screenwriters: from the play by John Colton/Jules Furthman/Geza Herczeg/Karl Vollmoeller; cinematographer: Paul Ivano; editor: S.K. Winston; music: Richard Hageman; cast: Gene Tierney (Poppy Charteris), Victor Mature (Dr. Omar), Ona Munson (Mother Gin Sling), Walter Huston (Sir Guy Charteris), Phyllis Brooks (Dixie Pomeroy, The Chorus Girl), Albert Basserman (Van Alst, the Commissioner), Maria Ouspenskaya (Amah), Eric Blore (Caesar Hawkins, the Bookkeeper), Ivan Lebedeff (The Gambler, Boris), Mike Mazurki (Coolie), Michael Delmatoff (Bartender), Marcel Dalio (Croupier), Mikhail Rasumny (The Appraiser), Clyde Fillmore (Percival Montgomery Howe, the Comprador), Grayce Hampton (Lady Blessington, the Social Leader), Rex Evans (Mr. Jackson, the Counselor); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arnold Pressburger; United Artists; 1941)
“A delirious masterpiece of decadence and sexual depravity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Josef von Sternberg’s (“The Scarlet Empress”/”The Blue Angel”/”The Devil is a Woman”) last great Hollywood film is based on a 1925 play by John Colton that required over 30 revisions ordered by the Hays Office censors before it was deemed acceptable. In one unreleased censored version, attributed to writer Jules Furthman, the blemished noirish heroine named Mother Gin Sling is instead named Mother Goddamn and runs a brothel instead of a casino. What remains from all the cuts is the surreal baroque setting–a gesture to the descent of mankind into the bowels of the earth–a casino designed like Dante’s Inferno.

Despite the forced changes, this is still a delirious masterpiece of decadence and sexual depravity that surrounds itself with Eastern motifs that are meant to mystify rather than enlighten. The film is aglow with delightful perversity, a depraved Victor Mature saying “Allah is great,” the constant threat of violence and fear of the unknown, and taunting nonsensical lingo such as “You likee Chinee New Year?”, as uttered by a giant coolie (Mike Mazurki), speaking in Pidgin English to the Walter Huston character, a real estate magnate who leaves the casino bewildered after being shocked beyond his wildest expectations by past events coming back to haunt him.

“Gesture” is set in modern times in the free international port of Shanghai, inhabited by people of all kinds of nationalities and described as a modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel. At the waterfront, a dark-skinned bisexual named Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), dressed in a fez and a white cape, who calls himself “Doctor of nothing, poet of Shanghai…and Gomorrah”), and his fellow decadent, Percival Montgomery Howe (Clyde Fillmore), the go-between for conducting illegal activity, bribe the police to allow broke Brooklyn chorus girl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks) entry into Shanghai in exchange for working in the casino run by the crooked control-freak Chinese woman Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson).

The main plot centers around the corrupt police commissioner (Albert Basserman) telling Mother Gin Sling that even her bribes can’t stop her establishment from being closed by the new Brit tycoon owner of the property, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). Mother Gin Sling gets the dirt on Sir Guy through her sources and discovers Sir Guy lived in China as a young man, married a Chinese woman and has a daughter, and was also involved in some nefarious financial deals. The daughter turns out to be nicknamed Poppy (Gene Tierney), which indicates she has a drug problem. The self-willed, helpless, and high-strung loose cannon of a girl, is encouraged to gamble by Mother Gin Sling’s pimpish associate Omar–who becomes her constant companion. Poppy runs up a big debt and adds gambling as another one of her addictions, but refuses to leave Shanghai at her father’s request.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

The awaited showdown between Sir Guy and the pleasure goddess comes about when he’s coerced into accepting a dinner invitation to her Chinese New Year’s celebration at her casino, where the other guests are made up of the corrupt elite of Shanghai (a superb supporting cast of the likes of Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore, Grayce Hampton, and others, offering sharply drawn eccentric performances). This is to be the last day that the casino stays open, but Mother Gin Sling plans to blackmail the businessman. Sir Guy doesn’t recognize that she was the Chinese babe he married, stole her family wealth, and abandoned. Mother Gin Sling has been filled with hatred for a long time planning to get even with her hypocritical former husband, who was then known as Dawson. Sir Guy believed she died when he tried killing her, and seems genuinely shocked to see her again–not recognizing her at first under her masklike doll face. It then becomes Sir Guy’s turn to shock her, as he mentions that she’s the mother of his spoiled-rotten disobedient daughter. When daughter and mother meet again with this new knowledge–the animosity is so great that the mother loses her self-control over her vitriolic daughter and shoots her dead. Mother Gin Sling tells her associates, I won’t be able to bribe my way out of this one.

It’s a film where the normal is the perverse and where nothing is left to chance, not even the gambling in the casino.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”