B&W lighting - The Lady From Shanghai

I either hate or love a black & white film. I love a b&w film if the photography tries to emphasise the art of silhouette and understands the complexity of simplification. I hate watching a b&w film if it's a bunch of uninteresting grey objects not knowing their places in any order of focal points, as if it's yearning to be in colour but the technology was too expensive at the time (or didn't exist yet).

The best example of b&w photography I seen so far is in The Lady From Shanghai by Orson Welles. There is a famous back-story behind this movie, and perhaps lead to the result of its failure to make a profit.

At the time Orson Welles was married to Rita Hayworth, the most famous pin-up model in her day well known for her luscious long red hair. The marriage was rather shaky, by then they had a daughter but even that couldn't keep the two together. Rita suffered from abuse as a child and Orson didn't know how to deal with that. Orson was doing a stage production of "Around The World in 80 Days" but was in debt to the costume company and needed the money to get the costumes the day before the play opened, so he called the head of Columbia pictures and borrowed the money to pay off the debt, in return he would make a picture adapted from the closest book within his reach, which happened to be some pulp-fiction noir his secretary was reading. When it came time to make the film his wife, Rita, wanted to co-star in the picture in an attempt to bring the two closer together. Orson reluctantly agreed, but he knew her trademark red hair would not work in the kind of film he was making. After all, what is red hair in b&w photography? Just some useless grey. So he made her cut her hair short and become an extreme blonde. Perhaps he knew there would be a public backlash to changing Rita Hayworth's famous pin-up look, however Orson only had one thing on his mind - to make a good movie - and so he did.

Some time after the movie was wrapped up, Rita and Orson decided it wasn't working out and got a divorce. The film was released two years later and in the public mistakenly viewed it as the cause for the break-up, and so fell out of the public favour and flopped.

Story-wise, The Lady From Shanghai plays out like a typical noir page-turner. Each scene keeps revealing new and intricate turns. To describe its plot properly would take about the amount of time to watch the film itself. But say what you want about the story, the film's look is a marvel on to its own. As an example I will take a single-shot from one of my favourite scenes - besides the house of mirrors climax - in the aquarium. The complexity of the lighting is a feast for the eyes, and I still can't tell whether it's in a real aquarium with strange refraction tricks or if it's a processing-screen behind them. The fish are distractingly huge, like Werner Herzog would say, they seem to be a metaphor for something but I don't quite know what.

Here are some screen-shots from one of the final moments in the aquarium, all taken from a single shot of Orson and Rita walking past the camera.

The beginning of the scene. Rita's full figure as she is walking and her face is half-cast in shadow. Orson is about to walk into frame.

Now we have both Orson and Rita in frame, walking towards us. The camera is currently stationary. Notice the shades of their clothing. Rita's coat is a pure black over a lightly shaded dress, you can't see the shape of her arms or chest, but you see her hands coming out, clinging on to a black purse. Orson is in a totally dark suit(in some shots it's all pure black), with a slightly less darker shirt underneath, along with his black hair, he's just a walking shadow save for his face and hands. It is to due to his dark attire that we can keep an eye on the white piece of paper he is holding, as it plays an important role to the story (I won't go into it here, I recommend watching the film).

They walk closer, the light has shifted a little darker in this shot. In movement, the light is constantly shifting up and down due to the water bouncing light in all sorts of directions. This is why it was important to separate the extremes of dark and light, because all the medium greys in between were going to be constantly shifting.

They come closer into a medium shot. Here, the camera begins to slowly turn right, constantly keeping the two slightly left-of-centre.

Even closer, and as the camera turns Orson's head casts a shadow over Rita's face.

I particularly love this frame. As Rita's face is being eclipsed, her eyes still glow out of the darkness. Their silhouettes become extremely defined in front of the bright fish-tanks.

However, notice when they're in front of a pure-black column. Rita's face and hair has become much brighter, but her body has completely disappeared. Orson is now walking in front of the camera as we come to the apex of its turn.

Both characters have switched sides, however remain left-of-centre. Rita still has glowing eyes and now she has gained glowing teeth!

Orson is the first to completely turn his back on us. Rita's face is becoming much darker, however when she's in front of a black column her blonde hair is lit up.

The camera has stopped turning and it is now tracking behind Rita and Orson. Pay attention to Orson's signature cheek, and how the light shifts as he walks past a black column. Keep in mind, this is all in the same shot.

For a while the camera tracks both characters as they talk with their backs turned towards us. How often do you see that in movies? I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but if it does, then it's usually for a reason. In this shot, it's totally casual, and it helps that it's just two characters - a man and a woman - so we can distinguish the voices.

The shot ends with both characters turning in profile looking at each other and the camera has stopped moving. Both faces are engulfed in shadow, with a bit of light outlining them both to separate them from the dark-grey background.

It's after that final turn, Rita talks for a bit, then there is a cut. To me this is the greatest example of black & white cinema. In the old days there was a lot of cigarettes being smoked on the screen, to create a constant movement even when the characters are static. To me it seems cheap and easy to just have someone smoking, especially if it adds nothing to the character. That's why I liked Orson Welles' films as he would always be inventive with movement. So go watch The Lady From Shanghai and see how film is really made!

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