The Lady from Shanghai (1947): More Than Luck

lady“A director is someone who presides over accidents.” —Orson Welles

“You are made from nothing but this, from these contingent manifestations, from these little discontinuities.” —Jacques Lacan

See this movie before you die.

It sounds glib, doesn’t it? Appealing to your fear of the ultimate deadline to add weight to my recommendation. Certainly it would be rather difficult to see the movie afterwards.

Strange thing, though… Once I got talking to a brilliant man who was lecturing at my college, a full-time cosmologist, no less, and a part-time cinephile. He’d somehow neglected to see The Lady From Shanghai, my all-time favorite film, so I told him that he simply had to.

He emailed me a few weeks afterwards to tell me that he’d watched it: “I loved the editing, the close-ups, the movement, the characters talking over each other. There was really no part where I was not totally engaged and engrossed with the artistic nature of the film.”


We chatted back and forth about movies—he was an Antonioni fanatic—then it stopped. A few months later, I learned that he had died following a long battle with cancer. He’d been fighting the last campaign when I met him.

I didn’t know him well. However, the fact that my recommendation brought the beauty of The Lady from Shanghai into his life before he passed away has stayed with me through the years. I’m not proud of very much I’ve done in my misspent life, but, damn it, I’m proud of that.

And if you were to ask me why I sit down almost every day and try to share the movies I love with people I’ve never met, I’d tell you that story.


Orson Welles suggested that films are largely made of accidents—which should come as no surprise. In all honesty, don’t accidents and chance encounters sculpt our lives more than our so-called willpower does?

We emerge from contingency, from incalculable contingencies. Just like movies. Just like The Lady from Shanghai, which wouldn’t exist as such without Rita Hayworth’s doomed final bid to rekindle her marriage to Orson Welles… and hundreds of contingencies besides.

The encounters we have with movies and around movies reflect the tenuousness of chance back to us. What was caught, as though off-guard, by the camera catches me off-guard and becomes part of me.


The Jagged Edge

Glass breaks. Mirrors shatter and fall in sharp, tiny pieces, like confetti with malicious intent. The characters, already refracted by dozens of angled panes, drop and cascade in a spray of light and dark. Images suddenly bloom with starbursts of shards and fractures.


When I first saw this scene, it held me spellbound, even in a 360 pixel YouTube frame. If not quite a surrealist ‘found object,’ my introduction to The Lady from Shanghai came at me without warning from the great jumble of the Internet, a cavernous, disquieting funhouse. It was more than a clip. It was an encounter. And from that moment on I did not use my head very much—but for thinking about film.

The scene had no narrative context for me, and it didn’t need any context. I was 16, and that was the summer Orson Welles’s films changed my life, transforming me from somebody who watched a lot of old movies into somebody who loved cinema and wanted desperately to understand it.


In the years since, though, I’ve reached my boiling point with obvious interpretations of the Playland sequence. Those dwelling in mirrored chambers shouldn’t throw stones, so I’ll ’fess up to the cheap trick analysis I’ve promulgated here and elsewhere, say my mea culpas, and promise not to do it again (until next week).

Still, on the subject of The Lady from Shanghai, I’m done with “the masks we wear” and “the images we project.” And I’m sick to death of the crazy mirror as the metaphor for Orson’s many chimerical guises and identities. The “jagged edge of symbolism” made Welles cringe while alive. Don’t let’s disturb him in his shroud.


Beyond Meaning

Why do we even try to decrypt The Lady from Shanghai thematically and/or autobiographically? Because it tempts us to. But we mustn’t fall into that snare. In fact, many of Orson Welles’s movies set this trap for the viewer. Their “themes” seem to announce themselves blatantly in the best college essay tradition. The lost innocence of childhood. Nostalgia for an imperfect past. The badness that we make terms with. The corrosive effects of police impunity. And so forth.


Yet, these themes collapse under the overwhelming sensuousness of Welles’s imagery. Who cares what that movie, that scene, that shot means? Could any meaning live up to what it makes us feel? Why, you might as well light a forest fire to symbolize a lit match as to create a sublime sequence like the mirror shootout to serve as a delivery system for some whiff of philosophy. Analysis should open, not close; expand, not contract.

In fact, Welles’s major criticism of Jean-Luc Godard centered on this very question of meaning: “His message is what he cares about these days, and, like most movie messages, it could be written on the head of a pin.”


In the same vein, when asked about the visual splendor of The Lady from Shanghai, Welles revealed that this beauty was born of frustration—and hinted that he intended it to cause frustration.

Reflecting on the lush, distracting backgrounds in the aquarium scene, Welles explained, “It was so gripping visually that no one heard what was being said. And what was said was, for all that, the marrow of the film. The subject was so tedious that I said to myself, ‘this calls for something beautiful to look at.’”


When people complain about The Lady from Shanghai, and some do rather loudly, they generally bemoan the lack of a coherent plot. This impenetrable narrative—so opaque and brackish that, even when Columbia head Harry Cohn offered a preview audience money to explain it, no one succeeded—ironically allows the audience to experience the film as pure cinema.


The Lady from Shanghai isn’t about ideas or even relationships. It’s a movie of gestures, tones, and textures, especially contrasts. Elsa’s flawless face in close-up gives way to ghoulish Grisby’s oily skin and bulging eyes crammed into the frame. The pale, platinum goddess flits like a dove across a skyline and races through slums like a fallen angel—but then glints darkly in the funhouse like a serpent or, backlit by the murky tank of a moray eel, strikes a profile of inky black flawlessness.


Like its title character, this movie never surrender its secrets.

Loving something means never comprehending it, realizing that you cannot grasp it or exhaust its charms. I love The Lady from Shanghai, which is why it’s taken me years to write a word about it.

I’ll doubt I’ll ever fully understand it. Maybe I’ll die trying.


The Gothic Note: Graham Greene on The Black Room (1935)

Graham Greene—yes, one of the greatest and most enjoyable writers of the 20th century—spent a good bit of the 1930s writing about movies. 

And he was the kind of critic who makes me feel unworthy to be a self-appointed critic. His keen powers of observation and unflaggingly sharp ability to zero in on flaws, foibles, and mannerisms could reduce even the most egotistical of entertainment personalities into shuddering piles of fearfulness and remorse. Greene possessed an innate Geiger counter for pretense and commercial tripe. Nothing hindered him from laying into his cinematic victims with a withering British politeness and eloquence.

Which is all the more reason why, when Greene reviews a film favorably, we all ought to pull it off the shelves and give it a fresh look. And, wonder of wonders, when reflecting on the 1935 Karloff vehicle, The Black Room, our emerging novelist remarked in The Spectator:

“I liked this wildly artificial film, in which Karloff acts both a wicked central European count and his virtuous, cultured twin of the Byronic period.”

Phew! We can all heave a sigh of relief. Foremost among Greene’s reasons for liking the film, he points out that The Black Room affords Karloff a role not as an inarticulate monster, but as both a monstrous, yet pithy human being and a good guy. We get a richer sense of his range.

“Mr Boris Karloff has been allowed to act at last… [A]ny actor could have produced the short barks and guttural rumbles, the stiff, stuffed, sawdust gestures, which was all his parts required of him. A Karloff scenario must have made curious reading. Were those grunts phonetically expressed?”

As much as that last rhetorical question provokes the 1930s equivalent of an LOL, I’m going to have to take issue with you, Graham Greene. (Please don’t haunt me! Wait… actually, please do.) Karloff can communicate an extraordinary amount through grunts and jerky motions.

Karloff: double trouble…

Nevertheless, I agree that ‘tis a treat indeed to watch Karloff swing into full-on Richard III mode with his wily, sardonic delivery of Baron Gregor’s lines. I also appreciate the louche physicality which Karloff explores in the part of a libertine, always lounging in a chair kicked back against a wall, his leg swung over the arm of the chair.

Karloff’s Gregor: inventor of “chillin’ like a villain”

As for William Roy Neill’s handling of the script, Greene accorded the interpretation rather high praise… at the expense of another great horror director:

“The direction is good: it has caught, as Mr James Whale never did with Frankenstein, the genuine Gothic note. Mrs. Radcliffe would not have been ashamed of this absurd and exciting film, of the bones in the oubliette…

“…the scene at the altar when the dog leaps and the paralysed arm comes to life in self-defense,

“…of the Count’s wild drive back to the castle, the lashing whip, the rearing horses, the rocketing coach, the strange volley of rocks with its leading cross and neglected Christ, the graveyard with owls and ivy. There is much more historical sense in this film than in any of… the ‘scholarly’ works of Mr Korda. A whole literary period comes to life…”

I am now going to critique this critique. Those of you with faint hearts may leave.

Dead men don’t blog back, so I want to clarify that I am in no way deriding Graham Greene. Let’s face it, though, his review does place a major limitation on horror, a limitation which runs the risk of oversimplifying the genre. He’s implying that horror should necessarily be Gothic in tone. At least, it seems that he’s taking a shot at Whale for abandoning the Gothic aesthetic. By contrast, Greene praises Neill and his “good” direction for remaining faithful to the literary tradition of Radcliffe and Lewis. His whole standard of evaluation hinges on a film’s relationship to a specific heritage of terror. I don’t think it should be that simple.

Indeed, I advise you not to read Greene’s review of Bride of Frankenstein if you happen to be squeamish or if you, like me, simply love that movie—the write-up is about as dismissive as Greene gets. He didn’t appreciate any of the camp elements, Whale’s “devil’s advocate” brand of empathy, or the piquant, looming bizarreness which Whale infused into talkie horror. Instead, the budding novelist kept hammering on the fact that the Bride just wasn’t scary in the Gothic sense, when, frankly, I doubt that it was meant to be.

I differ from Greene, because I can’t believe the aesthetics of horror are that clear-cut. Gothic—good. Departure from Gothic—bad. Now, I would argue that good horror may borrow elements from the Gothic, but it doesn’t need to.

And, yet. Always this “and yet…” haunts me, like the specter of a murdered brother!

I have to admit that Greene does make a strong case for the validity of the Gothic mentality as the core of pleasurable horror flicks. Just to be clear, for me, Gothic atmosphere and style revolves around contrivances, like curses, unspeakable secrets, and twin brothers. The esthetic also requires a certain benighted, costume-y feel which Greene beautifully conjures in the quoted description above. Finally, I would argue that this type of horror is joined to a psychological primitivism, a lack of obvious self-consciousness.

If a man starts hitting on you in a graveyard, you may be in a Gothic novel.

Gothic horror relies upon the ghastly for its thrills: churchyards, stabbings, murderous brigands, hidden deformities, and gruesome ironies. One of my favorite such moments in The Black Room (spoiler alert!) has Baron Gregor assume the bearing and manners of the brother he’s just killed while examining himself in the reflective onyx walls of the titular secret chamber.

There’s also something about the Gothic that reminds me of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Much of the fun of this genre literature (and Jacobean revenge tragedies, for that matter) derives from some kind of prediction, equation, or vow that ends up getting fulfilled, rather creepily and often with a slight plot twist, in the end. As it does in The Black Room, the conclusion of which I won’t disclose, but which you’ll understand if you’ve seen it.

“I begin as I end.” The family coat-of-arms and curse.

Another strength of Gothic horror as a genre resides in what I would describe as a lack of psychologizing. In place of tiresomely nuanced self-doubt, we relish heavy generalizations like Lust, Sin, and Innocence that dwell in the realm of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Black Room eschews the cumbersome self-analysis that we do get in more “modern” horror flicks, including some good ones, like the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Cat People.

That’s not to say that The Black Room lacks elements that lend themselves to psychological analysis, or to interpretation in general. Take the film’s use of mirrors as a means of suggesting moral doubling and division. Then there’s the fact that Anton and Gregor came from the same womb and are destined to end up in the same oubliette. But still, you could plausibly watch this movie and get no sense of anything deeper than a fine little chiller.

It’s entertainment in a rather pure, uncomplicated form, which is something that Greene and I both like and applaud. As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying film, I am refreshed by a film that doesn’t really want you to study or over-intellectualize it. I suspect that Greene disliked Whale’s movies because he found them too up-front and pretentious in their attempts at exploring the ambitious themes of life, death, and man-as-God.

No doubt, The Black Room deserves a place in the pantheon of classic horror, with its smooth, sinister tracking shots and pitch-perfect screen adaptation of Gothic tropes. The film does revive a whole literary era of wedding feasts cut short and specters of guilt and evil returning—without the self-conscious fear of Freud poking at them with his cigar.

But, and here’s where I diverge, The Black Room, despite its stylish qualities, does not herald a new era for horror as a genre, like the 1931 Frankenstein did with its jump cuts, its jarring use of sound, and its masterfully askew cinematography—askew to the point of abstraction at times. It surprises me that Greene, as a man who devoted so much of his time to pondering the fate of man’s soul in the face of modernity, did not appreciate the cruel, nervous, decidedly un-Gothic edge that Whale’s work adds to horror as a genre.

The “genuine Gothic note”: a menaced maiden.

Brave new word: man menaced… by his own creation.

The Black Room is a brilliant relic, though. I cherish it as such, and I strongly recommend that you watch it. So, apparently, did Graham Greene.