Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sharks and Minnows

A popular game when I was a child was to dive into the pool and try to make it to the other side without being tagged – or “eaten” – by the other children – or “sharks.” In this game, you were either a shark trying to tag someone or a minnow trying to elude the attentions of one of the predators lurking in the chlorinated water.
The goal of the game is nothing more complicated than “survival.” If a child made it to the other side of the pool, they promptly turned around and began contemplating exactly how they could swim back to the side they just abandoned...
I mention this only because it seems a perfect introduction to The Lady from Shanghai, a provocative and moody film noir from 1947 that traces the contours of a deadly – and yet, at the same time, childish – game between a trio of adults who refer to each other – and themselves – as sharks. Orson Welles, who produced the film, directed it and wrote the screenplay, plays the minnow the three sharks lure into their midst. Welles tries to swim with his treacherous company, but is thoroughly outmatched by their inherent cruelty.
The desperate chemistry created by the real-life disintegrating marriage between Welles and co-star Rita Hayworth adds to the interplay, as does the complex visual images Welles uses to infuse the picture with a paranoid atmosphere. The scenes in the aquarium and at the funhouse at the end are rightly hailed as wildly creative bits of noir, in which desperate characters try and fail to impose themselves on the fate they created through their own indiscretions.
A strikingly visual film...
Columbia Studio executive Harry Cohn famously hated this picture, claiming he could not understand what it was about. In Cohn’s defense, Welles never did a good job explaining the picture’s psychological themes. Hollywood lore has Welles conning Cohn into letting him make this film over the telephone before he even had a plot (While he was on the phone, Welles supposedly saw a nearby girl reading a Sherwood King book called If I Die Before I Wake and told Cohn that is what he intended to film). Borrowing heavily from the novel, the script was written in 72 hours and subsequently filmed at a similar breakneck pace. As a result, the entire enterprise has slapdash feel to it, but confusing? I cannot agree with that assessment.

Specifically, if we pay particular attention to a speech Welles gives in the film about a time his character watched some sharks erupt into a feeding frenzy, then the picture’s overall themes of emotional helplessness and self-annihilation become obvious:

“Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, 'till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.”
Michael, the character delivering this passage of dialogue, survives the events of The Lady from Shanghai – but only just. For much of the film, he is as confused about the plot as Cohn. Martin Fitzgerald believes this is because the film is essentially a “mystery story where the central character is too dumb to ask questions.” While Michael is clearly uneducated, I would hesitate to call him stupid. At times in the film, such as the lengthy passage I quoted above, he is the only character who realizes the truth about the sharks he has fallen in with. His ignorance elsewhere has more to do with him not being a shark himself – that is, in his being a “minnow” – than it does with any inherent lack of faculties. As Elsa, the femme fatale played by Rita Hayworth, tells him: “You know nothing about wickedness.”
Hayworth as blond femme fatale
We never learn about Elsa’s origins, beyond their Chinese source, but it is clear throughout the film that she knows plenty about wickedness and has no problem utilizing it whenever it suites her selfish purposes. She first meets Michael in Central Park, New York, where she takes such a liking to him that she allows herself to be mugged in order to compel him to save her. When he learns she is married, he wisely decides to steer clear of her, only to be recruited to help crew her husband’s yacht by the husband himself. As Michael’s strikingly self-aware narration reveals, “Some people can smell danger. Not me.”
On board the yacht, Michael and Elsa flirt with and tease one another while her husband and his law partner soak themselves in alcohol and quietly scheme their own schemes. When the law partner (played sometimes to perfection, sometimes too goofily by Glenn Anders) proposes Michael help “kill” him so he can scam the firm for insurance, we finally encounter the menace we believe has been building during the voyage.

However, like the funhouse of mirrors that dominate the film’s climax, this plot device is just one of the many distortions of reality competing for our attention. When Michael laments that “Everybody is somebody’s fool,” he comes as close to the truth as any of the characters in the film. What Michael – and through him, the audience – fail to completely see until the very end is that Elsa, her husband and her husband’s law partner are all trying to make fools out of each other. Their game is a convoluted, adult-version of sharks and minnows, in which they are each trying to play as sharks and make minnows out of everyone else.
Ironically, what the trio fails to realize is that sharks cannot make minnows out of each other: Once a shark always shark, so to speak. Elsa comes closest to understanding this when she tells Michael about the Chinese proverb that says if someone follows their nature, then they follow their original nature to the end of their days, but even she is incapable of stopping herself from playing the game. Like the sharks in Michael’s story, Elsa, her husband and her husband’s law partner end up annihilating themselves because they are unable to contain the frenzy their bloodlust unleashed.
Funhouse of mirrors for distorted people
The only person who walks away from this turn of events is Michael. He is unable to understand most of what happened, why it happened or take a lesson away from the events of the film precisely because Elsa was right about him – he knows nothing about wickedness. It is unfamiliar to him and he is unused to playing the games it inspires. He is, for all intents and purposes, a minnow.

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