Like many viewers, I was introduced to The Lady From Shanghai from Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery through the famous and mesmerizing final sequences. When I finally watched the full movie as part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, the film proved to be just as mesmerizing.
One of my reservations about film noir has always been the protagonist's immediate weak spot for the femme fatale. As beautiful and seductive as the femme fatale may be, and Rita Hayworth is great, I can never truly believe. Unfortunately that is one of the mainstays of the genre, and I always have to suspend my disbelief.
What is more credible is the portrayal of modern relationships, modern society and in particular how its mores and laws can be manipulated. Once it is accepted that Michael has fallen head over heals for Elsa, the story moves through locales and relationships, establishing who is manipulating whom, and how the social structures around them allow that to happen. The film shows how to manipulate the laws of the time (in which a prosecution could not be made without the murdered body), and how Bannister easily manipulates the judge and jury during the trial with his farcical self cross-examination.
My favourite shot shows the relationship between manipulations and society, and the murkiness of our social conscience in this context:
In this shot, placed in the middle of the nervous waiting of the characters as the jury deliberates, the judge is playing a chess game with himself as his office overlooks San Francisco (and Shanghai perhaps in the distance?). I love how the white chess pieces are doubly reflected. First through the city backdrop, the bridge piers mirroring the two knights, the city buildings mirroring the pawns. The city is a symbol of civilization and justice, standing firm against the impending darkness of the clouds. In the background, the moral leaders, the king and queen (the government), the bishop (religion), and the castle (the military?) are in stasis, prominently mirrored in the window reflection. They are in shadow, a bit murky, more grey than white, letting the knights and pawns do the work for them.
And just above them, equally grey, is the judge's floating reflection. As one of society's figureheads, he is worrisome, indecisive, and ultimately, within the plot, ineffective against the manipulations of the protagonists. In the courtroom scenes, we see the Judge easily manipulated by Bannister's sophistic showmanship. Here, he is agonizing on how to play the game, his white team of justice trying to hold back the advancing and unseen darkness. Ultimately, it is up to the jury, his fellow citizens of the city, to decide Michael's fate. But even that too is elusive, as Michael and the rest take justice in their own hands, moving the chest pieces around at the own will. Sometimes justice will prevail, but only in the movies, and even then there will always be casualties.