Friday, October 26, 2007

The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai posterThe leading lady's from Shanghai, and the film's dramatic climax takes us to San Francisco's Chinatown and then a crazy hall of mirrors in which all can be seen are the characters' multiple images. But the plot is sealed and the trap is set over the course of a long cruise across the Caribbean, through the Panama canal, and up the West coast of Mexico. And The Lady from Shanghai's guiding metaphor comes from a story told on a Mexican beach about a fishing expedition off the coast of Brazil. Once again, Orson Welles takes us south of the border, returning indeed to the truths revealed off Brazilian shores and in Mexican resorts.

The film's protagonist, "Black Irish" Mike O'Hara, addresses the film's femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, her husband, criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister, and his equally sinister partner George Grisby:
Do you know, once off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black, and the sun fadin' away over the lip of the sky. We put in at Fortaleza. A few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishin'. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was, and then there was another, and another shark again, till all about the sea was made of sharks, and more sharks still, and the water tall. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleedin' his life away, drove the rest of 'em mad. Then the beasts took to eatin' each other; in their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust and murder like a wind stingin' your eyes. And you could smell the death reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.
O'Hara fears he is being drawn into this fierce world of bloodthirsty, murderous and mutually destructive sharks. He is certainly sharkbait, set up to be prosecuted for a murder that may or may not even happen. As Grisby explains when they put in at their next port of call, Acapulco, he wants this Irish sailor with a shady past to kill for money, or at least to confess to having killed so that Grisby himself can get away with the money to some remote island in the South Pacific.

Little is as it seems in this convoluted film noir, and even by the end the plot remains murky. O'Hara does indeed pretend to kill Grisby, then is told that Arthur is the real victim, but on racing across the bay to prevent the deed discovers that Grisby has indeed died, at the hand of person or persons unknown, and that the faked confession in his pocket makes Mike the prime suspect, surely destined for the gas chamber. A farcical trial results, and we never even hear the verdict as O'Hara causes a commotion and slips out to a Chinese theatre where he meets up with Elsa, accuses her of being the true assassin, but is dragged off by her Chinese accomplices to the abandoned funfair in which Elsa and her husband trade shots, destroying the many-layered images that surround them until both collapse mortally wounded. Unhooking himself at last, O'Hara returns to the image that haunts him from his Brazilian escapade: "Like the sharks, mad with their own blood. Chewing away at their own selves."

All this had been foreshadowed not only in Brazil, but also in Mexico. It is in Acapulco that the seaminess of the world comes to the surface. For all its surface attractions, the tourist hotspot quickly reveals people's true natures: we glimpse a Mexican leading his gringa catch away and telling her that "Darling, of course you pay me!" Likewise, in response to Grisby's question as to how he likes the place, O'Hara responds that "There's a fair face to the land, surely, but you can't hide the hunger and guilt. It's a bright, guilty world." As such, then, Latin America functions here as the bright reflection that reveals the truth of the chiaroscuro depths to be found in New York or San Francisco. The guilt here is on the surface. In the north, the twisted contortions of the protagonists' inner natures are only revealed with extreme violence, in the crazy shootout and fractured glass of the funhouse shootout. Even then, other truths remain obscure to the end. What exactly did Arthur have on his wife, for instance? We never find out. But in Mexico we're on the point of discovering everything, even if its bright truths open up the abyss of the real that is as dangerous and clear-cut as the cliffs on the Acapulco coast.

The Lady from Shanghai still
YouTube Link: the famous final mirror scene.

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