EXOTIC NOIR

©2019, by M. Keith Booker

Film noir typically goes out of its way to produce atmospheres of strangeness and mystery, often with a hint of sexual suggestiveness. Mexico, for example, occupies a very special place in film noir, often functioning as an exotic site of mystery, adventure, and decadence, though Asia plays a special role in this sense as well. Indeed, one of the key strategies film noir employs in creating these atmospheres is to draw upon exotic (generally Orientalist) motifs, something Hollywood had in fact been doing since well before the noir era. And, even noir films that do not specifically focus on Oriental themes often use them for atmospheric support. The entire plot of Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, revolves around a Chinese jade necklace given by a wealthy older Sinophile to his much younger beautiful wife. The Sinophile also owns a lavish beach house whose modern décor is sprinkled with Chinese accents and which becomes the scene of a triple killing at the end of the film. Along the way, protagonist Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) pays a visit to a club whose atmosphere of mystery and slight decadence is enhanced by the presence of a Chinese dancer performing onstage. And it is not for nothing that, when Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe finds a dazed and drugged Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) at a scene steeped in murder and pornography in The Big Sleep (1946), the young woman is dressed only in a Chinese robe (which substitutes for the fact that, in the original Chandler novel of the same title, she is actually nude).

A number of noir (and even proto-noir) films focus almost entirely on Orientalist motifs. The most commercially successful of director Josef von Sternberg’s collaborations with star Marlene Dietrich, Shanghai Express (1932) is not a noir film per se, though it does have a number of noir characteristics. The most important of these is the depiction of Dietrich’s “Shanghai Lily” as a fallen woman who nevertheless displays strength, courage, and a moral rectitude of her own kind. That such a character should be presented so positively clearly identifies Shanghai Express as a pre-Code film, but also shows some of the moral ambiguity typically associated with film noir. The film is mostly a love story between Lilly and British surgeon Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey (Clive Brook), with added exotic interest thanks to the setting in a troubled, but exotic China that is in the midst of a civil war. Engaged five years earlier, the couple has been separated for five years, during which time Dietrich’s character has gained the “Shanghai Lily” label through earning her living by her “wits.” Most of the action takes place aboard a train from Beijing to Shanghai, though the journey is interrupted when rebel forces (depicted as corrupt and cruel) stop the train and detain the passengers. Indeed, the Oriental exoticism of the setting is played up in a number of ways, most of which contribute to an overall sense of a foreign land steeped in decadence, immorality, and political instability. At one point, we even see a camel beside the train as it prepares to depart Beijing for the three-day journey to Shanghai. When one passenger complains about a delay in the movement of the train (stopped when a farmer’s cow balks while crossing the tracks), another explains, “You’re in China now, where time and life have no value.” At another point, Henry Chang (Warner Oland), who turns out secretly to be the leader of the rebels, explains that he is half white and half Chinese, but isn’t proud of the white half and would rather be all Chinese. Shocked, an American passenger interrogating him asks, “What future is there to being a Chinaman? You’re born, eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die.” The two lovers, of course, transcend all this and wind up together—though it is quite clear that this is not a case of Harvey “saving” the fallen Lily.

William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), another film probably best identified as “proto-noir, opens with a tracking shot that establishes the setting on a Malayan rubber plantation, then moves into an enigmatic scene in which a shot is heard, a man stumbles from the plantation’s main house, and a woman follows him, pumping bullets into him as he finally slumps to the ground, dead. The woman is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), and the man is Geoff Hammond, apparently a family friend. Leslie explains to her husband, plantation manager Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall), and her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), that Hammond had made sexual advances and that she had shot him in self-defense. Leslie is arrested and jailed, though Joyce is confident of an acquittal on trial.

The situation then becomes more complicated when, through Joyce’s unctuous Malayan office assistant Ong Chi Seng (Sen Jung), it is revealed that Hammond had secretly been married to a “native” woman (played by Gale Sondergaard) and that the widow has in her possession an incriminating letter from Leslie to Hammond making it clear that they had been lovers. Though deeply troubled by the ethics of the situation, Joyce arranges for Leslie to clean out her husband’s bank account in order to buy back the letter, keeping it out of evidence. As a result, Leslie is found not guilty and released.

Torn by guilt, however, Leslie eventually confesses her affair to her husband, at the same time revealing that all his money had been spent to acquire the letter, dashing his plans to buy his own rubber plantation in Sumatra, where he and Leslie could start over. The husband is shattered, though perhaps the more interesting destruction in this film is that of Bloom, a once-virtuous man who seems unable to overcome his own guilt over his unethical actions in freeing Leslie of murder charges. In one way or another, Leslie thus takes down Hammond, Crosbie, and Bloom, demonstrating the destructive power of women in film noir. Mrs. Hammond, meanwhile, has some destructive power of her own, and the film ends as she and a male accomplice accost and murder Leslie with an ornamental knife in the dark outside the house where many of the locals are inside celebrating her acquittal. For her part, Leslie seemingly walks intentionally out of the house and to her doom.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this film is the way it normalizes the British colonial presence in Malaya, treating it as the most natural thing in the world for the British characters of the film to be living in relative luxury off the resources of the Malayan peninsula and the labor of the Malayan people. Most of the Malayans, meanwhile, are generally represented as obsequious toadies who of course could not manage their own affairs without help from their British masters. “General dealer” Chung Hi (Willie Fung) does operate his own business, with hints of various illicit dealings, though it is not clear how he manages to run the business given that he seemingly never stops smoking opium. In any case, his constant smile masks an obvious malice, and the film takes pains to undercut him throughout his one scene in the film, as when he proudly brags that he “speakie velly good Engrish” or when he practically salivates when he sees the money Bloom has brought to buy the letter. Meanwhile, the Malayan characters we get to know best are both classic Orientalist types. The bowing and scraping Ong Chi Seng hides a seething cleverness and viciousness beneath his oily exterior, while the seemingly inscrutable Mrs. Hammond, made more mysterious by her complete inability to speak English (despite being married to an Englishman), is similarly dangerous. She has one interesting scene in which she humiliates Leslie in a moment of reversal of the usual lines of racial power, but she is also exoticized, draped in ornamentation that emphasizes her Oriental sexual allure. Leslie’s description of Mrs. Hammond to Joyce is underwritten by jealousy, of course, but its Orientalist racism could not be more clear. The Malayan woman, according to Leslie, was “horrible. She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles. A face like a mask.”

Von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) presents the city of the title as a mysterious place of decadence and corruption and as a gathering place for rogues and adventurers from around the world. The Orientalist stereotypes in which it trades tend to conflate China with the Middle East, as when on-screen text at the beginning of the film identifies Shanghai as a modern-day Babel. The male “protagonist” is the fez-wearing Doctor Omar (Victor Mature), whom one of the other characters describes as an “Arabian,” and who appears to be a Muslim, given that he at one point yells “Allah is great!” On the other hand, he himself later claims that, while he was born near Damascus, his father was an Armenian tobacco dealer. He doesn’t wish to talk about his mother, except to say that “She was half French and the other half is lost in the dust of time.” “In short, I’m a thoroughbred mongrel. I’m related to all the earth and nothing that’s human is foreign to me.” The charming Omar is a smooth talker with the ladies, but he is a shady character. At one point he claims, as he prepares to join a card game, that he cheats at everything but cards. he is a doctor “of nothing.” Madame Gin Sling (Ona Munson) is the mysterious and deadly Oriental woman. “Poppy Smith” (Gene Tierney) refers to him as a “Persian poet,” having earlier asked him if he was any relation to “the poet Omar, the book of verses Underneath the Bough,” clearly meaning Omar Khayyám. He responds by quoting Khayyám, “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine—and thou beside me singing in the wilderness.” Poppy turns out actually to be Victoria Charteris, the daughter of Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who has come to Shanghai from Singapore under the auspices of the British “India-China Trading Company, which hopes to extend its operations in Shanghai.

Shanghai, in fact, looms large in the history of film noir. For example, the undercover investigation in Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) centers on a counterfeit ring, and particularly on the high-quality paper being imported by the ring from China. Indeed, the case involved is officially dubbed the “Shanghai Paper” case. But surely the most important noir film in which Shanghai plays a role is Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Based on Sherwood King’s novel, If I Die Before I Wake, The Lady from Shanghai is a complex thriller with sinister undertones that well illustrate the brooding atmosphere often found in film noir. In this case, as the title suggests, at least part of that atmosphere is imported from China, as is the film’s femme fatale, Elsa “Rosalie” Bannister (played by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s wife from 1943 to 1947, and still so when the film was made, in 1946).

The Lady from Shanghai also well illustrates the subtle, subterranean politics that often inform noir films. For one thing, it depicts its wealthy characters as decadent to the point of downright evil. Indeed, the machinations of the film’s upper-class characters (and, by extension, of their class as a whole) are compared through much of the film to the central metaphor of a school of sharks turning on each other and devouring each other in a frenzy of competition. The decadent rich are contrasted to the film’s virtuous working-class protagonist, the seaman Michael O’Hara (Welles). More interested in preserving his personal integrity than in pursuing wealth, O’Hara also has vaguely specified leftist political inclinations. At one point, he is described in a newspaper report as a “notorious waterfront agitator.” And, while this report may, given its context, be an example of inflated journalistic sensationalism, it is also revealed in the course of the film that O’Hara had spent time in Spain fighting against Franco and was imprisoned there for a year after the fascist takeover. The Lady from Shanghai thus displays the antifascist politics of many noir films, while at the same time commenting on the American ideology of competition in ways that tend ultimately to link that ideology to fascism.

In the beginning of The Lady from Shanghai, O’Hara encounters the beautiful Elsa when he saves her from an attack by robbers. He learns that she is the daughter of White Russian aristocrats and that she grew up in China after her family was forced to flee Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. He eventually also learns that she is the wife of famed trial lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), who meanwhile hires O’Hara to join the crew of his yacht, on which he and Elsa are about to set sail from New York on a cruise in the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and up the coast to San Francisco, where they live. On the way, they stop off in Acapulco, where Welles manages to work in some extremely vague passing commentary on American imperialism in Latin America. Meanwhile, O’Hara inadvertently becomes entangled in the corrupt affairs of the Bannisters, partly because of his sexual attraction to Elsa, and partly out of a chivalrous desire to rescue the young woman from her much older, crippled (perhaps by polio) husband, who seems to be holding her in the marriage through some sort of coercion. O’Hara also becomes caught up in the designs of Bannister and his vile law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), both of whom hope to use O’Hara for their own purposes.

From this point, the plot becomes rather complicated, but is in any case largely a pretext designed to allow Welles to set up his opposition between the virtue of O’Hara, the working-class leftist, and the evil of the film’s bourgeoisie, Bannister and Grisby, and its Russian aristocrat (and enemy of the Bolsheviks), Elsa. The remainder of the film involves the mutual efforts of Grisby and the two Bannisters, like the school of crazed sharks, to kill each other off, using O’Hara either to do the dirty work or to take the blame. (Among other things, Grisby concocts a complex scheme in which he claims to want to fake his own murder so he can disappear to a South Sea island where he will be safe from the threat of nuclear warfare.) Eventually, Grisby is murdered, leading to O’Hara’s arrest and trial for the crime and for the killing of Sid Broome (Ted de Corsia), Bannister’s hired detective, who had actually been shot by Grisby. O’Hara is defended (halfheartedly) in court by Bannister, who admits to his client just as the jury is coming in that he hopes to lose the case and thus abort any romantic relationship between O’Hara and Elsa. But, before the verdict can be announced, O’Hara manages to escape, eventually winding up in an abandoned amusement park, tellingly located in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, thus adding more Orientalist atmosphere. There, in the film’s most famous scene, he meets Elsa in the park’s house of mirrors. As she confesses to being Grisby’s killer, Bannister arrives there as well. In a bizarre shootout, the two spouses kill each other amid shattering mirrors bearing their own reflections. O’Hara, however, survives and finds that he is in the clear because Bannister has already informed the district attorney that it was in fact Elsa who killed Grisby. O’Hara walks away, leaving Elsa dying on the floor.

Mark Graham argues that The Lady from Shanghai is ultimately meaningless, a sort of elaborate joke, “wonderful celebration of the incomprehensible and the absurd” (162). Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. James Naremore, for example, is closer to the mark when he agrees that the dialogue and imagery of the film are rather zany but concludes that there is a great deal of meaning in this zaniness, especially in the way it serves to parody and mock the lack of meaning in most Hollywood films (More than Night 127). In any case, The Lady from Shanghai is an offbeat thriller to say the least. It is also an excellent example of the complex methods that had to be used by filmmakers who wished, in the late 1940s, just as McCarthyism was kicking into gear, to make leftist political statements. Indeed, if many viewers found the film hopelessly confusing, that may have been precisely the point. Amid this confusion, Welles manages to make political points that he might otherwise never have been able to get away with.