“Some people can smell danger. Not me.” Says Irish-born boatswain Michael O'Hara (Welles) to Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), in the dark of New York's Central Park. Directed and screenplay-written by Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai (1948) is vintage femme-fatale noir that's as silly as it is classic. O'Hara's hired by Elsa's husband Sloane to work aboard their yacht from San Fran to Acapulco and back, then becomes entangled in a sham murder plot involving the miserable couple and Sloane’s pestiferous law partner. Next... well, who knows what happens—the plot's as convoluted as a ball of frayed fishing line in a muddle of weeds. It doesn't matter. It's film noir. Disarray reigns. And the picture has enough style to keep you wanting nothing more. The hall of mirrors scene in the funhouse is fun. Chinatown, the Chinese, and the entrancing Hayworth talking Chinese are all sinologically delightful. Welles' lilty (it's in the OED) accent is caricature off the tongue. The tight editing and overlapping lines are deliciously unsettling and bizarre. This was a Welles experiment you either like or don't. A box office bomb that's tagged either "weird" or "strange." I like. Out of five: ★★★★.
"Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.”
I've watched this two or three times before but not for ten years at least. Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), a neo-noir mystery thriller starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is one of my all-time favorites. Everything elbows its way towards the film's perturbing culmination, a blend of noirish bleakness, disillusionment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, desperation, guilt, and evil.
What the film essentially says to us is the rich and powerful always win in the end despite all good intentions, despite the hero. "Chinatown" isn't just where the film's final few staggering moments unfold; it's a metaphor for authority doing, as Jake puts it in his final words, "as little as possible" while the top brass do what they want to whomever they please, and while the average Jane and Joe, in this case the people of Chinatown but intended as anyone beneath the elite, don't get truth or justice, or even an inkling of what the string-pullers are pulling. Very few films have pulled off such a clever and daring fusion of cynicism and entertainment.