“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.
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.