The Shanghai Express, a three day rail journey down the coast of dark, forbidding China, carrying passengers as remote and distant from each other as they are from their faraway homelands in Europe and America. Their loves and hates and desires for one another, based on snatches of conversation overhead moments or a lifetime ago, make each of them as incomprehensible as the constant barrage of the Chinese language, which is always shouting questions no one wants to know the answer to. The Shanghai Express is caught in the middle of a mysterious civil war, and though the train's passengers are by and large not political, they are nevertheless embroiled in a conflict they don't understand, though they know it could kill them at any moment. Or worse. The Shanghai Express. Hell.
At the heart of the drama is a woman known as Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), who, while not precisely a prostitute, is widely known to have taken a great many lovers for a great many reasons, few of which had anything to do with love. She is reunited on board the train with an old flame, Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) who is shocked to discover that the disagreement that separated them five years earlier was based on a simple misunderstanding, and the lovers are briefly reconciled on board the train. However, the terrifying journey through the darkest night brings out the best and the worst in all its passengers, and it is unclear if anything as wholesome as love can survive in such a putrid environment.
Shanghai Express is a disturbing and deeply erotic film. Director Josef von Sternberg has created a murky, elegant world full of light and shadows, where truth remains always hidden behind a veil of respectability, which nevertheless only serves to draw attention to what it hides. When a stuffy old woman named Mrs. Haggerty enters Shanghai Lily's compartment in search of a little female companionship, she tells Lily and her friend Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) that she runs a boarding house in Shanghai--Yorkshire pudding is her specialty--and that she only takes the most respectable people. "Don't you find respectable people terribly dull?" Lily drawls. Mrs. Haggerty, flustered, turns to Hui Fei for support. "I must confess I don't quite know the standard of respectability you demand in your boarding house," Hei Fei mutters without quite meeting her eye. Mrs. Haggerty can't get out of that compartment fast enough, and when the corridor is blocked, she squeezes herself awkwardly into a corner rather than spend another second in Lily's compartment.
Twice in the night the train is stopped, and the passengers are dragged out of their beds, told to dress, and pushed out onto the dark platform. Although the story primarily concerns the first class passengers, we get stray glimpses of cars so full the occupants must remain standing, climbing out through the windows when they are unable to reach the doors. Shaky flashlights track up and down the platform, inspecting the passengers, checking their passports. They whisper to each other in frantic English and French, desperate for any information on their predicament, and unable to glean any help from the talk all around them in Chinese.
The passengers are pitted against each other and the rest of the world through the long night of darkness, and although everything seems to be all right in the end, the jaunty music playing on the radio at the station in Shanghai seems out of sorts with the memory of their ordeal. Was it all simply a bad dream? Or is it the morning after that is the nightmare, the dream of hope that teases them with release, when in fact they are all still traveling, hurtling along forever through the night on the Shanghai Express?