In Shanghai's slimy underworld, English financier Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) tries to close down a gambling den owned by the devious Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). However, Gin Sling learns that Sir Guy's daughter, the wilful Poppy (Gene Tierney) is a regular at her establishment and with the help of the seductive decadent Dr Omar (Victor Mature) she lures Poppy into gambling debts and drug addiction. Gin Sling blackmails Charteris and he reveals a shocking secret plunging them into another level of hell. Based on a racy 1925 Broadway play (where Gin Sling was called 'Mother Goddam') THE SHANGHAI GESTURE received 32 rejections from the Hays censorship office before it was finally released. The Chinese government objected to the film's depiction of China and attempted to suppress it. THE SHANGHAI GESTURE brilliantly evokes the foreboding, poisonous noir underworld and stands out among Von Sternberg's best work.
Ona Munson (she was Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND) is simply astonishing as Gin Sling with those different hair creations, as she presides over that dinner party of people dependent on her to which she invites Sir Charles; also in the cast are Eric Blore, Maria Ouspenskaya in a silent role and Mike Mazurski as a very strange coolie. The young Gene Tierney is stunningly beautiful here (3 years before LAURA or her South Sea beauty the next year in SON OF FURY) and the set for the gambling den is merely stupendous. When the icy Mother Gin Sling tells us how she became who she is and discovers that the worthless Poppy is in fact her daughter she exacts a terrible revenge... its all lit and set as fascinating as any of the Von Sternberg-Dietrich pictures and is a worthy companion to them. It was in fact the last film the despotic director had total control of - Nicholas Ray completed MACAO (which like SHANGHAI EXPRESS also saw the Orient as a decadent mysterious place) and Howard Hughes tinkered with JET PILOT for years. It makes one wish that Von Sternberg's vision of I CLAUDIUS for Korda had been completed in 1937 but the fragments that remain will have to do.