Shanghai Express, with La Dietrich and Clive Brook, is the last word in Paramount commercial competence. The pure camera work is as slap-up as anything possibly could be. True, the story is foolish; the psychology grotesque; and there is too much talky-talk, and that talk is singularly inept, though uttered in a uniform tone of pregnant emotion.
The Blue Express was far from a first-class picture but succeeded in two minutes in suggesting the reality of a Chinese train, an achievement which eludes Paramount through a good hour of apoplectic effort. You could see nothing for the local colour, as in a bad story by Théophile Gauthier [sic].
But it is merely priggish to take seriously a film that has no purpose save to put La Dietrich through her paces. And you will admire Shanghai Express according to how much you admire Dietrich. "Did you ever see such close-ups?" a couple of sentimental adolescents next to me kept whispering in notes of subdued rapture. And they were quite right. The close-ups were marvellous. Her astonishing bony face was photographed in every conceivable chiaroscuro, registering every variety of complicated pain, and surrendering to every unreal abnegation.
Dietrich is a physical genius, who does well to spend her time on an international train. She has the sleek and sensual efficiency of a really expensive new leather dressing case.
The New Statesman and Nation, 26 March 1932, p. 393
I have to admit that that comparison in the last line caught me a bit by surprise.
It's not what I was expecting.