How is the famous conclusion inside the hall of mirrors an ideal symbolic reflection of the film’s structure?
Inside the hall of mirrors, everything is distorted and it becomes impossible to determine the real from the reflected reality of the real. One of the reasons attributed to the box office failure of The Lady from Shanghai was that it was too difficult to follow and the non-linear execution of the plot was further complicated by the enigmatic dialogue and off-kilter direction. All the inherent and underlying difficulties of that film that require close scrutiny to figure out what is really happening is made palpable inside the hall of mirrors. Ultimately, the most difficult aspect for both viewer and character among the mirrors is the hardship of knowing where everybody stands. The characters cannot effective hit each other with their blazing bullets because of the distorting impact of the reflections of reality. The sequence asks the audience to figure out who is standing where and that is essentially the question that the entire film has been asking.
How is the subversion of the conventional portrayal of the film noir “sap” in The Lady from Shanghai also a subversion of the typical Welles universe?
Generally, the “sap” in a film noir is essentially equivalent with being the “fall guy” except that through his very willingness to remain tempted by the femme fatale he is made complicit in the moral ambiguity of society. The “sap” is typically not a criminal type to begin with, but is easily transformed as a result of ethical vacuum at his own center. Michael, by contrast, never displays any such moral lapse in his character. He may move through the orbit of these amoral and immoral sharks, but he is never really willing or eager to become one of them; not even as a temptation to win or even try to save the Elsa. As such, Michael is not just the rare example of a truly unambiguously good person in a film noir, he is also a rare example of a true innocent in a Welles film. Even other “good” characters like Susan Vargas in Touch of Evil and Lucy in The Magnificent Ambersons are portrayed as having a greater potential to trespass certain ethical considerations than Michael, who always remains true.
How does the film use its cast of characters to implicate the society in which Michael inhabits as intrinsically corrupt?
Elsa is not just a femme fatale, she is the embodiment of everything that looks attractive and enticing on the outside while revealing itself as empty on the inside at best and utterly heartless and merciless at worst. The justice system, government and authoritarian systems in general come under attack both in the form of the broken body and irreparably damaged soul of Bannister (America’s most famous lawyer) and the presiding judge whose courtroom runs amok while he busies himself with distractions. The utterly repellent Grisby is a dark icon of American greed masquerading as the common individual while nearly every other incidental or minor character is both shot by Welles and performed by the actor almost as if they were carnival freaks. The post-war American character has become infected with a pestilence feeding upon its moral foundation from the top down and the only hope, the film seems to suggest, is the deliverance from evil by good people simply committed to remaining innocent to know nothing about wickedness. Or at least stupid enough to stay away from trouble.
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