Trapped by the Bad Infinite: Film Noir Against Contemporary Capitalism

By Ryan Engley

Perhaps it is not surprising that an Orson Welles film provides Classic Hollywood’s most enduring visual metaphor for life under contemporary capitalism. The surprising thing is that this metaphor comes not from Citizen Kane but the comparatively less heralded Lady from Shanghai. In it, Michael O’Hara (Welles) becomes infatuated with Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). Following his heart, he joins Elsa on an idyllic yachting getaway and becomes entangled in a complicated murder plot with Elsa and her husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane). It becomes clear that O’Hara is set up by Elsa to be the fall guy for another man’s murder (Grigsby, played by Glenn Anders) and, eventually, for Elsa’s planned murder of her husband. Right before the film’s climax, O’Hara and Elsa face each other in the Hall of Mirrors:

The characters are confined, trapped as it were, by the close quarters of the Hall of Mirrors. Yet within this extreme kind of constraint is infinity. The characters are projected in infinite variation behind them and to the left and right. The image tells us, paradoxically, that anything can happen—there is not just a multitude of choices and potentialities but an infinitude of them. And yet, the constraint of space lets us know that there is only one possible outcome here despite the seeming limitless surfeit of potentialities. The film reaches its climax with a shootout between Elsa and Arthur, who finds his way into the Hall of Mirrors. O’Hara is caught between the bullets and shattered glass and is the only one to make it out alive.

The Lady from Shanghai is a film noir, a genre made concrete and consistent through its dialectical relationship with the Hollywood Production code, or Hays Code, which lasted from 1934 to 1968. The Hays Code, the result of a push by the Catholic League to install a sense of morality and civility on screen, mandated that Hollywood films observe a restrictive set of standards and practices. Among the famous dictates included such Commandments as “No licentious kissing” and “Characters who commit crimes must pay for them by the end of the film.” In the noir, this led to a pervasive sense of fatalism that is perhaps best exemplified by Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film Detour. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking across the U.S. to be reunited with his long-time girlfriend when the man he has been traveling with, Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), suddenly dies. Al immediately realizes that nobody would believe his story, not the police and possibly not even the viewer who may suspect him of tendentiously unreliable narration. So, what does Al do? Barely sixty seconds after becoming aware of Haskell’s death, Al steals Haskell’s clothes and identity.It’s a thought process that seems extreme and unrealistic but, given the constraints of the Code, is completely reasonable. In the latter half of the film, Al accidentally kills Vera (Ann Savage) but he does so as Charles Haskell, leading to the film’s Code bending final scene where Al as Haskell is arrested in a fantasy sequence. The crime of identity theft, effectively, allows Al to avoid diegetic punishment for his crime of murder, subverting the Code.

One of the typical stories told of film noir is that it is not so much a genre but rather a loosely connected clutch of crime films that share a gritty aesthetic. According to this view, film noir is brought together in the popular imagination only by the writing of famous French film scholars and filmmakers such as Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, who used the pages of Cahiers du cinema to extol the artistic virtues of American films overlooked by Americans. While the influence of French film scholarship on the way we think about film noir is undeniable—I mean, it’s a French phrase, obviously—there is a thematic consistency to noirs that arises not from the retroactive grouping of film scholars but from the internal negotiation of an external limit placed on them by the Code. Most importantly, it is this quality of the noir—its dialectical encounter with the Code—that makes its way into the film image itself, as we see with the Shanghai mirror scene, that continues to be referenced by recent film and television series. What in Shanghai is an existential critique and exceptional bit of camerawork and set design becomes the template for a visual metaphor that comments directly on the state of living under contemporary capitalism. We see this clearly in three more recent pieces of popular media (all coincidentally released in 2019): Us, HBO’s Watchmen (2019), and Spiderman: Far from Home.

In referencing The Lady from Shanghai’s Hall of Mirrors sequence, Us, Watchmen (2019), and Spiderman: Far from Home interject the constraint of the Code into films and television that know no such external limitation. The ghost of the Code emerges here as an internal limit. Informed by the Code era noir of The Lady from Shanghai, what these more contemporary media texts suggest theoretically is the distinction between what Hegel termed the “bad infinite” and the true infinite or “infinite of the concept.” The bad infinite is the unlimited sprawl of “and then” that knows no conflict with an internal limit, nor with contradiction. In other words, the bad infinite never encounters itself. The bad infinite is reason expanded infinitely without encountering the deadlock of subjectivity. We see this logic at work most prominently in contemporary capitalism, which seeks to expand and—through this expansion—provide no opportunities for the subject under capitalism to encounter themselves. Each of the following examples makes a clear move away from the bad infinite and toward the deadlock of contradiction brought about by an internal limit. This allows these scenes to stand not simply as hipster references toa non-mainstream Classic Hollywood film, but media texts that help us read back to The Lady from Shanghai—and the noir generally—and see anew its formal radicality.

To this end, Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us adds an important gloss to the Shanghai’s iconic scene: the infinite is no escape at all. Set initially in Santa Cruz, California in 1986, the opening sequence of Us sees young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) make her way into “Vision Quest,” a beachside fun house. As she cautiously makes her way through the winding corridors of the fun house, the lights go out. Emergency lighting illuminates only the exit signs. We see the following shot from her perspective, low to the ground and tilted slightly up.

Adelaide runs toward the exit sign only to bump straight into a mirror. She staggers back and looks up again, only to realize that the exit sign was a reflection and that the way out offers both several possibilities for escape but, crucially, none at all.

HBO’s 2019 adaptation/sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen furthers the paradox of limitless potential within confined space that we see in Lady from Shanghai and Us.Created for television by Damon Lindelof, Watchmen (2019) takes the classic graphic novel’s text as its back story while weaving in a critique of racism. The series is notable for narrativizing, in effect, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s well-known Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” in its first episode, which begins with the 1921 race massacre that destroyed “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The first episode instantiates one of Watchmen (2019)’s most critical questions: even if a country like the U.S. acknowledges and begins a process of reparations for racial violence like the Tulsa Race Massacre, how do we repair time? How do we undo and ameliorate historical trauma? What logic does it take to even begin to think an undertaking such as this? The answers the series has to these questions are articulated throughout its limited run, particularly in episode six, “This Extraordinary Being” and in episode eight, “A God Walks into Abar,” but for the purposes of this essay we will be looking at another recurrence of The Lady from Shanghai’s iconic mirror scene.[1]

Steph Green directs episode five, “Little Fear of Lightning,” which tells the backstory of Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), one of Watchmen 2019’s original characters. In the original Watchmen graphic novel, Ozymandias—the self-proclaimed Smartest Man in the World—engineers a hoax terrorist event perpetrated by aliens to save the world from the Cold War. Rather than fighting each other, the U.S. and Soviet Russia agreed to come together to defend the planet from an extraterrestrial threat. This is, more or less, where the graphic novel ends. Readers see the destruction wrought by a yonic alien creature bluetoothed into existence over Midtown, Manhattan.

The HBO series, rather than surveying the damage after the fact, puts us right in it on the ground floor.

Before he became Looking Glass, a masked vigilante working in the Tulsa, OK, police department, Wade Tillman was a young, naïve Christian, working to spread the word of god to sinners. Unable to convince anybody at a Carnival in Hoboken, New Jersey to follow the life Christ, young Looking Glass (Philip Labes) is seemingly rescued from being bullied by Roxy (Julia Vasi). He follows her into—you guessed it—a Hall of Mirrors.

Roxy correctly guesses that Wade is a virgin and promises to give him his first sexual experience. She slowly takes Wade’s clothes off, as “Careless Whisper” plays in the background, only to run off with them. She quickly yells “Fuck you, Bible boy,” leaving him naked—castrated—and alone in a hall of mirrors where, as you can see below, Wade has to look in horror at infinitely projected versions of his own naked body; a macabre version of Lacan’s “Mirror stage” where Wade recognizes himself as a desiring being.

As Wade excoriates himself for being “a filthy, dumb sinner,” Ozymandias kills millions of New Yorkers with a giant squid monster and psychically traumatizes hundreds of others, like young Wade Tillman, who runs naked out of the hall of mirrors to see dead bodies with no idea how any of it happened. The trauma of his recognition of himself as a desiring subject is redoubled.

Watchmen (2019), by so forcefully foregrounding desire and trauma in the Lady from Shanghai frame, shows us how these forces come together in the Welles original. Under the Code, there certainly could not be a sex scene as explicit as the one in Watchmen (2019) and yet it is desire that leads Michael O’Hara (Welles) down the path that ends in the hall of mirrors, just the same as Wade Tillman. O’Hara can only watch helplessly as Elsa and Arthur shoot enough mirror images of themselves and each other to eventually hit their intended targets. He walks away from this scene in a way that Wade, in Watchmen (2019) cannot.

Wade learns a lesson the hard way what O’Hara seems to understand when he says to Elsa, “One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end. But haven’t you heard ever of something better to follow?” To which Elsa responds, after a lengthy pause, “No.” It’s tempting to read Elsa on the side of the ethical position of psychoanalysis here—not giving ground relative to one’s desire—but I think the presence of the infinite is most important here. What Wade and Elsa are lured by is exactly this infinitude of desire. O’Hara rightly sees that this is a trap and Wade learns this only after the fact of his utter humiliation and castration. Desire, here, needs to be the exceeding of a limit, not the embrace of the limitless.

Finishing our trifecta of 2019 visual media latently obsessed with Lady from Shanghai, is Marvel’s Spiderman: Far from Home. In the second of Sony/ Marvel’s most recent Spiderman trilogy, we see Peter Parker (Tom Holland) struggling with the possibility of becoming the most important Avenger after—NOTE there be major SPOILERS for a four year-old Marvel film past this DASH—death of Tony Stark in Infinity War. In Far from Home, Parker continues to shirk his duties as an adventure in an attempt to enjoy a summer field trip with his classmates, hoping to get closer to love-interest MJ (Zendaya). He says repeatedly in the film that he just wants to be a “normal kid,” an “ordinary” kid and have an utterly mundane life—at least for a minute. What Parker is looking for is the infinite. The life of a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a very finite and determined one. Superheroes in these films jump from crisis to crisis working to uphold, usually, a political status quo that imperils their personal status quo. Far from Home shows Spiderman at his least responsible: giving up his great power to obtain a shot at the carefree life of a teenager. The film literalizes the thematic when Parker hands over to Quentin Beck (Jack Gyllenhaal) sunglasses that are linked to a satellite super computer with global missile defense capabilties. Crucially, Tony Stark left these glasses for Parker, choosing him as the person to carry on in his stead after his death. Beck fills the Stark vacuum for Parker for a time. Beck, who eventually goes by the name Mysterio, is a new superhero who has arrived, allegedly, from another dimension to help defeat elemental creatures in Parker’s world. In truth, Beck is a disgruntled former Stark Industries employee who uses illusions to trick Parker into thinking he is trustworthy all as a ploy to get these global missile defense glasses.

Once Parker becomes aware of Beck’s grift, he attempts to get the glasses back and alert Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D of his error in trusting Beck. (As an aside, do we think it was difficult for Jake Gyllenhaal to play Quentin Beck as a self-obsessed gaslighter or do we think Far from Home screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers pretty much let him write his own lines? #JaketheSnake #TeamTaylor #SwiftJustice #AllTooWell) Beck eventually traps Spiderman in a very familiar looking illusion.

The jagged glass reflecting Spiderman back to Spiderman is, of course, reminiscent of a well-known meme where two Spidermen point fingers at each other, but it also continues to play on the relationship between infinity and confinement that Welles visualizes in Lady from Shanghai. For Parker, this scene recalls his oft-stated desire in Far from Home to be anybody else other than who he is. This refusal to accept his subjectivity and desire for an infinite of other possibilities is the central tension that Parker has to face in Far from Home.

What Parker sees in every other possible life path other than his own is freedom. Freedom of choice. Like an aisle full of shampoo and conditioner at Walmart, the infinity of choice seems to inhere a kind of freedom within it—the only potential to satisfy desire. What these film and television images show us, however, is that this assumption of the liberatory potential of the infinite is fatally incorrect. This kind of infinite does not hold within it the potential for radical break. Far from Home concretizes for us the Hegelian thread that runs throughout all of these examples: avoiding the limit is no way to encounter it.

[1] Watchmen (2019) will eventually use Dr. Manhattan, a pan dimensional being who experiences all of time at once, as its way of arguing for how to redeem time: we cannot “get over” or move past historical trauma, we have to tarry with it—exist with it at the same time as we do something as mundane as getting a drink at a bar.