Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1948) is one of the most anti-noir of classic noirs. “Shanghai” in The Lady From Shanghai means the same thing as “Chinatown” in Chinatown. It is a synonym for “Noirville,” a place where no one has control over their destiny, and passive acceptance of the world’s corrupt, fallen nature is the smart guy or gal’s way to survive. But Welles’ film is all about fighting against this view of the world and the characters – notably, Rita Hayworth’s Elsa Bannister – who embody it. (No one in America had yet used the term “noir” to describe these dark films, but by the time of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) or Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), the conventions were pretty well established.) The more Welles’ character, Mike O’Hara, is seduced by the noir view, i.e., by Hayworth’s character, the darker and more expressionistic the film becomes. One can hardly imagine a more effective visualization of the dark forces lurking behind the everyday than those monstrous denizens of the deep roiling behind the silhouettes of Hayworth and Welles as they rendezvous at the San Francisco Aquarium.
One of Welles’ visual metaphors for noir’s fatalism is the image of the judge’s chessboard superimposed over a view of the city – as if the judge were a god, and the city’s people his helpless pawns. Welles makes his position clear by having Mike overturn the chessboard.
Welles also makes his position clear in the dialogue he gives Mike: “You said the world’s bad. We can’t run away from the badness, and you’re right there. But you said we can’t fight it. We must deal with the badness, make terms. And then the badness’ll deal with you and make its own terms in the end, surely.”
If life is meaningless, then we’re just conciousnesses floating in a void – like the images of Hayworth and Everett Sloane suspended in Shanghai’s hall of mirrors – with nothing but each other to reflect upon or attack. Welles definitively rejects this view of life by having Mike abandon Hayworth in the mirror maze and walk out into the “real” world at the film’s conclusion.
Those who’ve called Welles the most experimental narrative filmmaker of his era, and “twenty years ahead of his time” were right. Consider the shot from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors, above – the fracturing of the frame, the repetition of imagery (the same, yet different) – and compare it to Andy Warhol’s silk-screened disaster paintings of the early ’60s. The editing of this sequence is like nothing seen in cinema, even Soviet cinema, up to that point.
Expert parodist that he was, Welles’ self-conscious elaboration of noir conventions, in combination with his critique of them, makes Shanghai the first real neo-noir – if that term has any use at all. (It would have to be the self-consciousness of a noir that make it “neo,” rather than the year in which it was released. Defined in that way, we can see that directors like Welles, Aldrich, Kubrick, and Jean-Pierre Melville were making “neo-noirs” while other directors were still making noirs. Alternatively, “neo-noir” simply means every noir made after 1955, 1958, or some other arbitrarily selected year – and how does that illuminate anything?) The Lady From Shanghai is a film noir that rejects noir, in much the same way that Welles’ The Trial (1963) is a modernist film that rejects modernism. Welles thought modernism was a fraud, but he also considered himself a fraud. (See, 1974’s F for Fake.) A complex guy!
Click on the frame of Hayworth and Sloane, above, to see a much larger version.