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United Artists: 90 Years

Wednesday, July 9, 2008
7:30 p.m. The Shanghai Gesture
Josef von Sternberg (U.S., 1941)

Set in the polyglot Shanghai pleasure dome of one Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson), every frame crammed with orientalist clutter, Josef von Sternberg’s melodrama is rich in motif if wanton in structure—no wonder it was a favorite of the French Surrealists. (Munson’s cantilevered lacquer hairstyles alone are enough to transcend reason.) Among the casino’s many denizens are Gene Tierney as Poppy, whose preferred addiction is not the opium poppy but the roulette wheel; Victor Mature as the object of her petulant affections, “Dr. Omar of Shanghai . . . and Gomorrah”; and Walter Huston as Sir Guy Charteris, a capitalist with big plans for the district (the tenants “seem to have power, but they’ll have less when we’re through with them”). When the cast of characters converges at a New Year’s banquet of “stimulating dishes,” complete with girls in bamboo cages, the result is a return of the repressed that would do the Surrealists proud.

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Geza Herczeg, Jules Furthman, Sternberg, based on the play by John Colton. Photographed by Paul Ivano. With Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson. (92 mins, B&W, 35mm, From George Eastman House, Preservation funded by the National Endowment for the Arts)