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Welles's femme fatale from Shanghai by Sharad Raj


YEAR: 1947


The Lady from Shanghai, a 1947 Orson Welles film received an erratic critical response when it first opened but today it is considered one of the finest gems of film noir cinema. Film noir is a genre arrived at by American cinema in the late thirties, early forties and became one of the most exciting vehicles of cinematic language. The actors, the producers and the audience all demonstrated a special affinity for the genre.

Film noir was heavily influenced by German expressionist cinema, mastered by greats like Fritz Lang and FW Munrau. If expressionism was a testimony to the dark side of the human mind in post-war Germany, film noir converted the dark spaces of human mind and character into brilliant style statements. It soon became cool to be dark as films of the genre continued to woo audiences. Orson Welles who was sitting on the pinnacle of greatness with Citizen Kane displayed his versatility with The Lady from Shanghai starring himself and his wife at the time, a dancing star of Hollywood, the gorgeous Rita Hayworth. Hayworth had become synonymous with the genre and did quite a few crime films in her career, Gilda the other famous film. Welles and Rita’s marriage was on the rocks but Columbia Pictures was adamant on Welles getting Rita for her sheer star power and Orson Welles needed to make a film after a few duds in his kitty.

Irish sailor Michael O'Hara meets the beautiful blonde Elsa as she rides a horse-drawn coach in Central Park in New York. Three hooligans waylay the coach. Michael rescues Elsa and escorts her home. Michael reveals he is a seaman and learns Elsa and her husband, disabled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister are newly arrived in New York City from Shanghai. They are on their way to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Michael, attracted to Elsa despite misgivings, agrees to sign on as an able seaman aboard Bannister's boat.

Bannister’s partner, George Grisby who proposes that Michael “murder” him in a plot to fake his own death, joins them on the boat. He promises Michael $5,000 and explains that since he would not really be dead and since there would be no corpse, Michael could not be convicted of murder. Michael agrees, intending to use the money to run away with Elsa. Grisby has Michael sign a confession. But Grisby who is mysteriously killed and Michael is framed.

At trial, Bannister acts as Michael's attorney. He feels he can win the case if Michael pleads justifiable homicide. Bannister also indicates that he knows the real killer's identity. Before the verdict, Michael escapes by feigning a suicide attempt. Elsa follows. Michael and she hides in a Chinatown theater. Elsa calls some Chinese friends to meet her. As Michael and Elsa wait and pretend to watch the show, Michael realizes that she killed Grisby. Elsa's Chinese friends arrive and take Michael, unconscious, to an abandoned Fun House. When he wakes, he realizes that Grisby and Elsa had been planning to murder Bannister and frame him for the crime, but that Broome's( a sailor on the boat) involvement ruined the scheme and that Elsa had to kill Grisby for her own protection.

Elsa played with aplomb by the sexy, long legged Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai was looking for an accomplice to fulfill her intent to kill her husband. She doesn’t stop at killing her lover to save herself while she feigns love for Michael. But she is human. Elsa falls for Michael and wants both her true love and safety for herself from the punishment for her crimes. Alas, the femme fatale had a tragic flaw of getting over ambitious.

Film noir is also seen as a genre inspired from the films of Alfred Hitchcock. While Hitchcock often had female protagonists committing crime and being on the run, noir films had proactive criminally minded women characters who used love, beauty and sex as tools to serenade men, often the hero to commit crimes for them. These characters were referred to as femme fatales. Female characters with fatal instincts. These women unapologetically used their feminine charm to fatal extents for their goals. Femme fatales were both admired and criticized for their persona. Admired because the quintessential Hollywood heroine, a young nubile girl lost in the world without her lover gave way to women character who were brazen about their sexuality and were go getters. They were politically incorrect. The criticism was obviously from feminist quarters that derided woman using her body and physical charm to have her way.

Films like The Lady from Shanghai and others of the noir category were also seen as middle class rebellion against bourgeoisie mores. The Victorian men and women revolted against clinically disinfected characters and stories. In the times when Freud was getting into the Oedipal minds of mankind and Nietzsche’s concept of “superman’ was finding fascist interpretation, human psyche was opened to public spaces. The skeletons began to tumble and men and women enjoyed the exhibition of their diabolical potential. Eros and death finally found their expression in mainstream Hollywood cinema. These films characterized by grey characters and high contrast lighting largely weaved their stories around the theme of love and deceit.

Sharad Raj is an independent filmmaker, faculty at Whistling Woods International and the Editor of Just Cinema.

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