Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Film Noir in Orson Welles Films

(Written December 2015)

Orson Welles used many techniques and stylistic choices that could be considered appropriation of film noir, as far back as Citizen Kane. He especially appropriates it in The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil. These films could even be classified as film noir, their appropriation of techniques and style is so heavily influenced by film noir. All three films take some of the archetypes of film noir and explore them in different ways or subvert them completely, ranging from the typical "Spider-woman" femme fatale to the heavy use of shadow and distinct light. All three use these and explore them in different ways.

            The Stranger uses several different techniques and things from film noir to appropriate it. This film in particular uses a lot of good use of shadow and silhouette that was common to film noir. In the beginning of the film, when the man is first getting to Mexico, he is framed as a silhouette on the boat. As he leaves the boat, he is followed by a woman, and another woman is seen in shadow above him, spying on him. The film has more of these as well, such as when Mary is walking in the cemetery and there is a slight silhouette on her. Also, from far away the clock tower is shadowy, and when Franz is working in the clock tower he usually has some shadow or silhouette to him. In fact, during the final scene in the clock tower, there is a lot of use of shadow, from the shadows on the character's faces to the shadows being cast in the background as the action ensues.

            The Stranger also appropriates another thing from film noir, subverting it a little bit. The Stranger plays a little with the idea of a "femme fatale", or a female character that is dangerous to the main character. This appropriation can be thought of in two ways: either there is no femme fatale, and Franz instead is the male version of a femme fatale, a secretive, dangerous individual that the main character is in love with. Another way to think of it is that Mary is indeed the Femme Fatale as she is dangerous to Franz, as he is married to her and she has some power of him and could potentially mess up his plans because of that. Either way, there is indeed an aspect to a dangerous, secretive relationship, which is something seen often in film noir. Franz is hiding many things from Mary, such as being an ex-Nazi and having killed a man and a dog. He is dangerous, but Mary loves him and doesn't know his secrets. This sort of dangerous relationship is a constant tension throughout the film, because it causes there to be different ways that the characters could end up.

            Another character type that is played with in The Stranger is that of the film noir detective. the closest analog to this archetype of character from film noir is Mr. Wilson, the man who is looking for Franz throughout the film. He has the typical fedora-style hat and is constantly seen smoking his tobacco pipe. As he investigates, he questions many of the people around town, and is seen as the good guy in the film, trying to root out Franz and stop him from doing anything to the people of the town, even enlisting Mary's brother to help investigate. This character is very much in the know around town, and indeed he plays a very big part in the ending, where he goes to the top of the clock tower to confront Franz. He also has something in common with Franz, That they both have an obsession with clocks and clockwork, which draws parallels between the two of them.

            The Lady From Shanghai also plays with film noir techniques and ideas. One of the things that The Lady From Shanghai does is play with the film noir trope of being followed. in the film, there are several times where characters are being observed or followed. Once such time happens early in the film where the main character, Michael, is being tailed one night, and he realizes and punches the guy and runs away. This is not something usually seen in film noir, as the main character would not know they were being followed, and if they did, would probably not resort to a quick burst of violence and then running away. Also, later in the story George is observing Michael and Elsa from far away, and Michael doesn't notice. But George ends up just talking to Michael about what he saw, instead of  blackmailing them or anything else that would be expected from the way he was watching them from far away. This film ends up almost seeming like a parody of film noir in those ways, as it so drastically subverts the expectations from the tropes it uses.

            The Lady From Shanghai has a lot of different conversations that are very much secretive conversations, much like you would see from film noir. There is a little bit of scheming between the characters, beginning with Michael and Elsa talking about their relationship, and that it shouldn't happen. From there, there are more secretive conversations, such as when George asks Michael to kill him for $500. Michael and Elsa have another secretive conversation at an aquarium, and another at the Chinese theatre after Michael has been framed for George's murder.

            In The Lady From Shanghai, Welles again plays with the idea of a Femme Fatale. Elsa in this film could be considered a femme fatale. She is dangerous, she had killed George, and she was behind a lot of things that happened in the film. However, this is not really revealed until the end. In most film noir films the femme fatale is a character that is constantly playing with the main character, and her intentions while shady and secretive are usually pretty obvious. Elsa in this film plays the innocent, even at the very end when it is revealed that she had killed George. This was helped by the fact that Rita Hayworth, who played Elsa was not thought of as an femme fatale actress. In the end, she even dies in a way typical of femme fatale, trying to finish things up, and trying to get with the main character. She wants to leave with Michael, and she is killed by Bannister, and Michael leaves, being the only one to survive the mirror maze.

            Touch of Evil, as well, uses many things from film noir an appropriates them and plays with them. One such thing that is done in Touch of Evil is the use of location. Locations are very important in film noir, from shady bars and hotels to detective offices. This film is no different. One important location in the film is the border of Mexico and the United States. The first scene takes place there, where a bomb is planted on a car on the Mexico side and when it goes over the United States side explodes. A lot of the action throughout the next few scenes all take place in and around the border, as the investigation starts to take place. There are shady bars that are visited by the main characters, and a secretive conversation between Hank and Joe Grandi is even had in a shadowy bar. Mr. Vargas' wife is staying in a hotel throughout most of the film, and the sense of the location is very strong. It is a very shadowy, run-down hotel, and there seems something a little off about it, and it turns out later that the hotel is run by Grandi and a few of the Grandi family people come and take Mrs. Vargas's wife away from the hotel.

            Another thing that the film does is play with the film noir aspects of being followed and observed, similarly to how The Lady From Shanghai did. In Touch of Evil, very early on Mrs. Vargas is followed by one of the Grandi family, and instead of being followed for a long time, he then comes up to her and leads her to meet with Joe Grandi. She is also observed from across the way in a room through the window by a man with a flashlight. She notices and tells him to stop and throws something at him. Again, instead of simply being observed or followed as in other film noir, the character realizes they are being followed or observed. Even later in the film, Mr. Vargas and his wife are being followed by Joe Grandi, but when they change vehicles, Mrs. Vargas and a police officer are instead being followed, and the police officer realizes, stops and arrests Joe Grandi.

            Talking about Joe Grandi, he is a type of character that is seen in many different kinds of films, but especially noir ones. He is kind of the big bad villain, he is in charge and creates a lot of the trouble that moves the plot forward. He's an interesting character in this aspect however because he is pretty incompetent. As mentioned before, he was caught following Mr. Vargas's car and arrested for it. Earlier in the film, he is trying to intimidate Mrs. Vargas into asking Mr. Vargas to back off from the Grandis, but it turns out that he is not very good at being intimidating, and ends up not doing too much to help himself. Joe Grandi is even double-crossed by Hank Quinlan, which ends up making Hank Quinlan more of the villain after that in the film. The character of Joe Grandi definitely subverts expectations because he is thought of as the main bad guy, but in fact his underlings are more competent than he is, succeeding in kidnapping Mrs. Vargas and intimidating the night man at the hotel.

            There are many different tropes, techniques and stylistic choices in film noir, and these three Orson Welles Films, The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai, and Touch of Evil show off and subvert many expectations of these choices. From the use of shadow and lighting, to the different archetypes of characters used throughout the films, there are many different ways that these films play with what is expected of film noir. They are both film noir and not, doing things that are different from the genre while still being within the walls of the genre. These films all appropriate film noir in their own way, some choosing to be more noir-like and others barely having a sense of it spare a few techniques. Overall, these films all show Welle's use of appropriation of film noir in many different ways.

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