Shanghai, home to every stripe of human life, and in a multiracial district, the gambling den of Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). She is always on the lookout for fresh customers to hook into her establishment, and has a network of not quite respectable characters who bring them in, as Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) has done tonight when he plucked wandering chorus girl Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) off the street and invited her along with the promise of a meal - and the promise of getting out of trouble with the law. But there could be a better catch in the casino tonight, as a young woman calling herself Poppy (Gene Tierney) approaches the bar...
It's safe to say The Shanghai Gesture is not a normal film. The last work of director Josef von Sternberg to pretty much have his creative control after the fertile period of the thirties, it was much lampooned in the press at the time, though did fairly well at the box office; it became an object of derision due to its toning down of its notorious source material, a play that had featured various sensational elements that in no way could have made it to the screen in 1941. Therefore the script, by von Sternberg and collaborators, aims for an atmosphere of decadence while pussyfooting around precisely what makes it so, which doesn't help at all.
This means the brothel of the original became a casino, prostitution is referred to only obliquely, and if anyone is taking drugs then they do it in private. Nevertheless, all these things are going on, and have to be implied for a savvy audience to work out for themselves, but curiously perhaps the most controversial aspect was the idea of the sexual mixing of the races. In a sane adaptation the Chinese Mother Gin Sling would have been played by a genuine Asian, but as she is supposed to have been married to the white Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) the role was taken by blonde Ona Munson under absurdly extravagant makeup (check out those hairstyles), something that only contributes to the weirdness.
In truth, The Shanghai Gesture is a laborious watch, yet after a while its monotony - every scene is presented in the same overripe manner - grows strangely hypnotic. Maybe it's the way that it all takes itself so deadly seriously, so you can have Victor Mature as a poetry-spouting, fez-wearing Arab and he's not the daftest aspect of the film, as everything that happens is a matter of life and death. The corruption we're seeing ranges from Poppy's introduction as classy and pure which doesn't last long after she starts at the roulette wheel, to the more hypocritical kind as Sir Guy is not all he's cracked up to be, having tried to "clean up" Shanghai by moving the casino operations to a rougher part of town.
Not that this discourages business, if anything it renders it all the more exotic, but Mother Gin Sling is still resentful and we find out the depths of that ill-feeling at the end. By that time once-virginal Poppy is a petulant brat throwing herself at men, although in spite of this unflattering role von Sternberg works his magic on the visuals so that Tierney's legendary beauty rarely glowed so much, and Charteris's shady past has come to light to make us recognise that nobody in this film, and by extention nobody in the world, is entirely blameless. This dissolution is laid on thick, to the point that it turns suffocating, and however some lovers of camp may laugh at it, The Shanghai Gesture is so achingly sincere that the unintentional humour actually drains away to be replaced a grinding (im)morality lesson. The imagery of an inescapable hell on Earth is unbelievably pretentious, and doesn't really convince anyway, but you can't say there's much like it as seen here. Music by Richard Hageman.