Vintage Double Bills: ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ and ‘Body Heat’

by Koom Kankesan
The Lady from Shanghai - Wikipedia

The Lady From Shanghai (1947) is a well known noir by Orson Welles although it’s not as well known as his Touch of Evil (1958). Welles’ style is of course key to understanding the formation of the noir genre and Welles seems repeatedly drawn to the genre’s themes of fractured identity and moral occlusion, not to mention his preference for labyrinthine plots. One could say that his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1962) is an arty film noir. But then again, all of his movies are arty in the best sense – they innovate and dazzle, experiment with stylistic tropes while plunging headlong into operatic emotion.

Welles doesn’t shy away from strong femme fatales either, and The Lady From Shanghai exhibits a real doozy. Rita Hayworth, married to Welles, has been persuaded to chop off her trademark auburn hair in favour of a striking blonde do. She plays Elsa, the young wife of famous criminal trial lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Welles plays the young Irish seaman Michael O’Hara who falls under Elsa’s spell and ends up working on her husband’s yacht. Throw in other quirky and typical film noir-ish characters and you have a very full movie made up of interesting details and vibrant scenes.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) directed by Orson Welles • Reviews, film +  cast • Letterboxd

There is a plot that involves faked murder, real murder, legal loopholes, and the ‘nefarious’ mystery of San Francisco’s Chinatown. But the plot is nowhere near as interesting as the noir-ish world of shadows and motifs the film authoritatively draws the viewer into – the portentous conversations, highly theatrical filmmaking, not to mention Welles’ odd but satisfying delivery (and narration) in a highly unconvincing Irish brogue. These all effect a terrific dreamlike world that transports this film beyond the yen of typical film noirs. One can read elsewhere about Welles’ difficulties with Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn and how Welles was forced to re-shoot much of his film on sound stages instead of real locales.

It is heartbreaking to learn that much of the stylistic intent Welles had originally executed was compromised by these dealings, and it is emblematic of Welles’ struggle with studios in general. However, much of his brilliant sensibility remains in the striking visuals and camera work, haunting locations such as the aquarium with the giant fish and octopus behind the silhouettes of O’Hara and Elsa, and the incredible Wellesian drama culminating in the sequence at the fun house, not to mention the shootout in the hall of mirrors. Though that scene has been trimmed to a fraction of its intended prominence, it still remains one of the most striking sequences ever printed on film. The film isn’t as ‘serious’ as Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, but it’s a tour de force.

Through a Glass, Darkly: 'The Lady From Shanghai' and the Legend of Orson  Welles

The question as to how its characters and themes have aged is an important one. Some would argue that noir insights into human nature and corruption are eternally important. In a memorable scene, O’Hara describes his memory of a group of sharks destroying and eating each other. It’s an analogy for what Elsa and Bannister and the rest of their crew do. It always stays with me as an apt analogy as any for human nature, and possesses a ring of wisdom. On the other hand, what are we to make of the idea of femme fatales? Like Marie Windsor in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), this femme fatale serves no purpose except to embody wickedness. There is no explanation for the way she is – she is purely a honeypot of greed, licentiousness, and manipulation. Surely, such a construction is irredeemably sexist. A film made today featuring such a character would be ridiculed and met with opprobrium, but the idea of the alluring yet dangerous woman is a stock feature of genre films. Think of the deranged roommate, the bad Bond girl, the high school vamp, the queen bee bully – aren’t these all progeny of the femme fatale?

Body Heat (1981): Shooting script | Alexander Street, a ProQuest Company

Body Heat (1981) is a film shot in colour that hearkens to the tropes of film noir. The most famous neo-noir shot in colour is perhaps Chinatown (1974), but whereas Chinatown is set in the forties, Body Heat is contemporary to its release. It revolves around the familiar noir themes of adultery and murder, working through a series of legal double crosses that keeps us (and the protagonist) guessing. The protagonist, played by a young William Hurt is an inept lawyer called Ned Racine who becomes embroiled with surprise, surprise, the unhappily married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner). As with The Lady From Shanghai, our protagonist is lured into a relationship in which he will be set up to kill the husband, hoping to share in the fruits – impending wealth and sex.

Body Heat is a much more sexual (if not necessarily sexier) movie than The Lady From Shanghai. The sex starts early and happens often, and both Hurt and Turner give themselves to their roles. Oddly enough, Ted Danson plays a district attorney in the film who proves to be the modestly chaste, sexual and moral conscience of the film. From the conjoining of the words in its title, the film makes no bones (no pun intended) as to what will be front and centre here. The sultry heat of Florida lends itself to scenes in bathtubs, boat houses, and boudoirs that would make the old folks blush. This film came out after the excesses of the sexual revolution, anticipating the kinds of films that would wear their soft porn stripes prominently, thrillers like Fatal Attraction and erotic dramas like 9 1/2 Weeks. It’s as if once the sexual revolution was over, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with its newfound freedom except revel in it, then punish somebody. There’s a scene where Racine walks up to a lithe blonde in a gazebo with her back turned towards us and says, “Hey lady, wanna f**k?”, mistakenly thinking he’s talking to Maddy Walker. This serves as an anthem for the whole movie.

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As a film, Body Heat is a fairly engrossing, though quiet, thriller. Its director and writer, Philip Kaufman, has become associated with erotic fare with a literary bent (think of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June, and Quills), but he also made the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and contributed to the writing of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He’s a solid writer and filmmaker. Furthermore, the film rather than simply presenting us a modern noir in colour, uses night scenes and shadows to subtly evoke the noir themes it resuscitates. It also speaks to the enduring prevalence of America’s fixation with money and what people are prepared to do for it.

As films portray goldigging, hustling women who seem ultimately inhuman, the films themselves traffic in the commodification of these women’s beauty and the golden sex they promise. Whether we watch these films critically, immersively, or guiltily, they have a lot to say about what we look for in genre cinema. We like our villains to be both game and greedy, ethereal and evil, and we like our heroes to be broken and brave. But we also live in a time when things have become so hypersexualized and cynical that perhaps the conventional tropes of the noir no longer hold the allure and shock value they once did. Gender roles can no longer be serviced by the clean cut lines of protagonists who wear snap brim fedoras and antagonists in killer heels and glistening makeup. Watching these films is like looking through a noir’s cracked glass at something very potent and relevant without being able to agree on what it is.

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