Orson Welles’ 1947 masterpiece sticks in my mind like a barbed spear. It’s my favourite Welles, despite being (like almost all his films) shredded by overzealous editors. Many grace notes were lost, such as the virtuoso opening tracking shot through Central Park, and the film is fragmented as a result; but even RKO’s most savage cutters couldn’t deodorise erase the sweaty claustrophobia. While Touch of Evil (1958) has a more quintessentially ‘noir’ plotline, it doesn’t have quite the same tenacious grip on my imagination.
Shanghai concerns a doomed love triangle (is there any other kind?) between Michael, an Irish sailor (Welles); Elsa, a beautiful woman with a dark past (Rita Hayworth); and her polio-stricken husband Arthur (Everett Sloane). Michael and Elsa soon become embroiled in a virtually incomprehensible murder plot, orchestrated by the sexually repressed, deeply creepy Grisby (Glen Anders). Or so he thinks, the fool.
In Shanghai, sex is always deeply weird and/or illicit. The extremely tight framing and harsh lighting highlights every male sweat glands in the vicinity, while Hayworth shimmers over these pathetic, decaying figures like an angel reimagined by Goya. As Arthur and Grisby leer and cackle over Elsa’s impossible beauty, Welles’ cynicism about human sexuality is laid bare.
It’s testament to the paramount importance of mood in noir. No genre has been so confused with its moth-eaten collection of stock props. A Bugsy Malone-esque pastiche of gangster movies is still a gangster movie of sorts. Any old trifle about a downtrodden team triumphing against all odds is still a sports movie. A cowboy shooting his nemesis makes a western. But noir’s not a shopping list – real classics of the genre can only be made by perverse spirits, which is why so many neo-noirs fail as homages.
Take the Wachowski Brothers’ sexy but vapid Bound (1996), essentially a mulch of noir tropes. There’s femme fatales, bloodied banknotes, fall guys, prison stints, etc. All the ingredients are there … but it ain’t noir. Yet Basic Instinct (1992) is the greatest modern Hollywood noir due to its sickening spiral of gluttonous lust, founded on a fascinated revulsion for human addictions.
While the criminal element of noir is seen as its defining feature, but it’s actually a red herring – the genre’s really about neuroses and the damage they do to people’s psyches, where chaotic desires leak poisonously from men and women’s rancid souls. It’s just that criminality’s the most fertile soil for growing these noxious fruits.
And that is why I dislike procedurals, that genre that parasitically subsists on noir’s cred. Once you know roughly how a police department works, procedurals are all the same. Those doing the spadework are invariably boring, and the criminals are dumb or faceless.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950), for example, is a humourless defence of benevolent authority; the superbly shot He Walked by Night (1948), charting the extended pursuit of a criminal through city and sewer, has its incipient noir atmosphere deracinated by its detached perspective and bland pieties about ‘the long arm of the law’. Snore.
Of course, not all films can be about desperate, irredeemable people helplessly engulfed in psychological vortexes of their own making. But in this neurotic’s view, they’re the best.