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Shadowing Film Noir:  Hollywood's Political
2004 MLA Convention
Philadelphia, PA
27-30 December


Sheng-mei Ma
Michigan State University

A Touch of Yellow in Film Noir

Do not cite without permission of the author.


            The essay title stems, of course, from Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil (1959), which marks the end of the film noir era in the 1940s and 50s. Evil, as it turns out, is highly contagious; a slight touch would transmit wickedness to the whole filmic universe.   Overweight and alcoholic, the corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles) frames innocent people and commits murder.   The noir trademark of chiaroscuro associates Quinlan and the Mexican border town with darkness and evil.   The menacing other--Mexican youth gang in black leather jackets--constitutes precisely what James Naremore in More than Night (1998) describes as the noir "male fascination with the instinctive (a fascination that was evident in most forms of high modernism)," expressed in "white characters who cross borders to visit Latin America, Chinatown, or the 'wrong' parts of the city" (12-13).   Assuredly, "south of the border" is one locale where film noir fetishizes the other. Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo find in Noir Anxiety (2003) that "Different from the interior landscapes of Mexico, East-West noir shows its viewers its racial evil in parts: as jewels, as cabarets, as musical sounds, as theaters, as neighborhoods, as difference in skin color or lighting" (232).  

            This essay investigates this touch of yellow in film noir, a touch that becomes a synecdoche for the entirety.   Naremore, Oliver and Trigo, and others have long noted the presence of the Orient in film noir.   For instance, Oliver and Trigo write:            

The noir films that focus on Los Angeles or San Francisco are also Orientalist, as they tend to emphasize and demonize their Asian collectives and locales.   From the hideaway of D.O.A. 's Persian Majak . . ., West Coast noir takes us on an Orientalist tour that includes Geiger's Asian opium den in The Big Sleep , the apartment of noir's first homosexual Hong Kong-based and Istanbul-bound family in The Maltese Falcon , or to the similarly marked beach house of Jules Amthor in Murder, My Sweet , who is looking for his jewels (which happen to be Chinese).   In West Coast noir, the West is a threshold to the racialized East, and the sexually perverse Chinatown is often the portal. (232)

A thorough and insightful catalogue on Oriental motifs in film noir, the authors lapse at times into generalizations and hyperboles.   Closely examining these Oriental scenes would reveal that Majak in   D.O.A is more Arabic than specifically Persian and Geiger in The Big Sleep operates a porno studio rather than an opium den.   Geiger does offer alcohol spiked with laudanum to his "model," but calling it an "opium den" brings up inappropriate historical associations.   In Murder, My Sweet , it is difficult to read the beach house as marked by Amthor's homosexuality.   In fact, neither the beach house nor the jewels are Amthor's.   The scene at Amthor's apartment does not signal any relationship between Amthor and his dark-skinned chauffeur. Facile stereotypes are summoned in lieu of analysis, which suggests that even in the best efforts,   a systematic close reading of the Oriental motif in film noir continues to be absent, as though it were but a trivial focus within the totality of the genre.   Only in sporadic fashion or appendix form do critics devote passages to the Orient. Yet a mere touch of yellow can discolor film noir as a whole, for filmic self-reflexivity redirects evil inward. Cinematographically, yellow perilism in film noir proliferates in terms of abundant reflections in mirrors, windows, glasses, water, and photographs, yet the projection of evil onto an Other is undercut by the very nature of reflections.   Evil is ultimately boomeranged right back at film noir itself.   

     Although dissenting voices like Marc Vernet's exist, reading film noir along with its literary inspiration sheds light on the kinship of yellow and noir.   Vernet refutes the literary argument for the genesis of film noir by means of the time--a decade--that elapsed between Dashiell Hammett's novel and the first film noir: John Huston's 1941 The Maltese Falcon ("Film Noir on the Edge of Doom").   Yet insofar as the theme of yellow and noir is concerned, detective stories and their celluloid spawns are, shall we say, "partners in crime."   The first film version of The Maltese Falcon directed by Roy del Ruth in 1931 features a Sam Spade fluent in Chinese and the crime of "whodunnit" is solved by an Oriental character speaking in Chinese (Carl Richardson's Autopsy: An Element of Realism in Film Noir, 38-39).   More significantly, the West Coast detective stories of Hammett and Raymond Chandler provide scripts for film noir as well as a penchant for yellow villains. Hammett's The Maltese Falcon first   entangles the object of desire with Oriental history and then portrays one of its pursuers as an Oriental:

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height.   His hair was black and smooth and very glossy.   His features were Levantine.   A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat.   His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips.   His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion.   The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats.   He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps.   The fragrance of chypre came with him.   (322)

While Oliver and Trigo attribute evil of the East "in parts: as jewels" and other objects, the name "Cairo" has rendered the character a metonym, an embodiment of the Orient.   The part that is an Oriental and the whole that is the Orient are wedded. Any ornament or physical feature, however small, on Cairo 's person, comes to crystallize the East.   Fastidiously, decadently dressed, with his less than manly posture, his exotic, alluring perfume, Cairo resembles a castrated Charlie Chan, a feminized homosexual. Similar Orientalist "cross-pollination" between literature and film extends to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940, which becomes Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet in 1944), among other works.

            Chandler's The Big Sleep is turned into a Howard Hawks film, with a script cowritten by William Faulkner.   (I refer primarily to Hawks' 1945 pre-release version of The Big Sleep rather than the 1946 version in circulation.)   Oriental themes in the 1945 version revolve around an Arthur Gwynn Geiger, porn shop owner, photographer of smut, blackmailer, homosexual, and supplier of laudanum.   In the original novel, Geiger is portrayed as a yellowface.   The décor of Geiger's "studio" or "boudoir" is distinctly chinoiserie, its walls "decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery and Chinese and Japanese prints," its floor covered with a "thick pinkish Chinese rug." Geiger wears "Chineses slippers . . . and his legs were in black satin pajamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat" (23), Geiger himself having a "fat face, Charlie Chan moustache, thick soft neck.   Soft all over.   Well dressed. . . His left eye is glass" (18-19).   A Charlie Chan look-alike, Geiger is described as effeminate, clownish, and perverse with a fake eye and having a homosexual assistant and lover with the female-sounding first name of "Carol."   Not only Geiger's "house of sin" but his exterior appearance is chinoiserie in style: from interior decoration to Geiger's body.   Inside Geiger's typical American house are rooms with enigmatic Oriental ornaments.   Behind Geiger's respectable bookstore for rare books is a pornographic shop.   Living within the body of an apparently white male is an Orientalized "queer." In this sense, Geiger ought to be likened to Fu Manchu rather than Charlie Chan, especially when the latter, as Earl Derr Biggers conceives it, is the chinoiserie version of Philip Marlowe.. In view of the fact that Fu Manchu also sports a moustache, Chandler could very well refer to Geiger's as a "Fu Manchu moustache." That Chandler would slip in this "naming malapropism" indicates that stereotypes are ultimately interchangeable, good or bad Chinese notwithstanding.   Frankly, it is difficult to determine whether a Westerner Geiger disguises himself as Charlie Chan or a Charlie Chan as Geiger, whether it is a white playing yellowface or a yellow playing whiteface.   It would take a master detective on a par with Sherlock Holms, Nayland Smith, Phlip Marlowe, or Sam Spade to solve the mystery.

            Into Geiger's house of sin comes Carmen Sternwood, Philip Marlowe's client, the stock character of the fallen white woman, tainted so much by Oriental sins that she takes into her body laudanum, to pay for which she poses nude for Geiger.   Instead of the nude with only "a pair of long jade earrings" in Chandler's original, the 1945 film visualizes Carmen, for obvious reasons, clothed in vaguely Chinese dress.   While the original is titillatingly salacioius, the film achieves similar effect via Carmen 's dark, silky dress, with sinuous, glittering Oriental design.   Carmen is found, in Chandler, with the pose of "an Egyptian goddess. . . The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil.   They were mad eyes.   She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness" (22).   Carmen is in a trance, suspended between willing partnership and hypnotic enslavement, between white desirability and "Egyptian" insentience, to be photographed by a camera hidden in a " totem pole," yet another association with dark primitivism; she is but one of film noir's femme fatale, fallen white women under the spell of an insidious Orient.   Her transgression lies in blurring the boundary between East and West, allowing the inside (her body, affiliation, culture) and the outside to be miscegenetically woven.   The Orient, the source of all evil, corrupts Geiger, then Carmen, and threatens to infect the universe of film noir: the Orient is infectious and addictive. Granted that Geiger is "bumped off" early on, the first murder in the detective story as a matter of fact, his house of sin remains, however, the center of crime and mystery, in which a dead body vanishes and then materializes, to which Marlowe is obliged to return again and again. In addition, Geiger's house is owned by Eddie Mars, the hidden archvillain of the film.

Although Howard Hawks completed the shooting of The Big Sleep in 1945, Warner Brothers decided to withhold its release until 1946 for several reasons.   First of all, the end of the war forced the studio to rush into release all its war film.   The Big Sleep , on the other hand, would not look passé even after the war. Secondly, to ensure box office profits and the meteoric rise of Lauren Bacall, who played Vivian, Carmen's older sister, the team reassembled to shoot new scenes to accentuate Bacall's sex appeal and audacious persona--the image of femme fatale. While Bacall's Vivian is not without vices--she gambles at Eddie Mars' gambling house, she is not a girlish, thumb-sucking nymphomaniac like Carmen, nor an addict.   Carmen's promiscuity and dependency on the Orient render her pathological.   The studio's decision to privilege Bacall's Vivian over Martha Vickers' Carmen, in effect, distracts from Raymond Chandler' s Orientalist text and Hawks' original 1945 pre-release version.   Warner Brothers fashions a Caucasian sex star at the expense of her Orientalized sister, for the whole scene of Marlowe's search of Geiger's house with its exotic milieu and his search for negatives of Carmen Sternwood's photographs is cut in the 1946 version.   The 1946 film moves from Geiger's body, to a drowsy Carmen being thrown onto the sofa, and to a dissolve to Marlowe discovering Geiger's secret code book.   On the editing room floor are the scenes of the camera hidden in a Buddha's head (rather than Chandler's totem pole) with its missing film; the pouring down the drain of a Middle-eastern-looking decanter with contents vile enough to make Marlowe wince upon sniffing Carmen's glass ("the flagon of ether and laudanum" in Chandler); Geiger's handkerchief, the perfume of which gives Marlowe-Bogart, icon of pained masculinity, a knowing sneer; and all the exotic wall hangings and interior decorations in between these moments.   Without fully introducing the pornographic photographs in this scene, the 1946 version drastically minimizes Carmen's role. Gone is not only a minor actress's career, but a whole slew of Orientalist tropes.   In Chandler and in the 1945 version, Carmen's degeneration at the Geiger's is consistent with the fall of the Sternwoods. Her father General Sternwood's invalidity confines him to the family greenhouse.   Sternwood ironically compares his fragile cling to life to that of a "new-born spider," surviving as if on heat alone; he also likens his progeny to orchids flourishing around him, exotic but repellent with the perfume of "the rotten sweetness of a prostitute" (corrupted into "the rotten sweetness of corruption" in the film).   No matter how glamorous and sexually explicit Vivian's retakes with Marlowe are in 1946, Vivian is no orchid, as she tries to shield her father, Carmen, and, eventually, Marlowe by complying with Eddie Mars's blackmail.   Only Carmen is such a flower of evil.   The interlocking Oriental metaphors are truncated, the bulk of which on Carmen suppressed, in the interest of Bacall's image and, of course, box office considerations.

Another detective story (Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely ) turned into film noir is Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944).   Dmytryk drastically reduces Chandler's Orientalist plot, so the following discussion revolves around the original novel.   Eastern objects and characters surface in an incidental fashion to provide the plot with more foul play and violence.   The jewel heist of a Chinese-sounding "Fei Tsui jade" leads Marlowe to a murder, which leads to the victim's "marihuana" cigarette rolled with the name card of a certain Indian "Psychic Consultant " Jules Amthor and his "smelly" Indian bodyguard, which leads to days of being drugged and imprisoned and so forth.   Fetishes associated with non-white and non-male culture join hands in oppressing Marlowe and his investigation: the jade belongs to a femme fatale; the marijuana cigarette comes out of a case of embroidered silk and dragon design; the fake Oriental quack, in the stereotype of a reader of minds, orders to have Marlowe manhandled, which ushers in Marlowe's drugged delirium, a state of mind often associated with the Orient in film noir; and, in Chandler's story and not in Dmytryk's film, the implicit homoerotic relationship between the Indian psychic and his henchman--Oriental mind and body; Oriental wiles and animalism. Consistently in film noir, Oriental metaphors render the white self paralyzed--Carmen's addiction and nudity; Marlowe's "lost weekend" (he escapes Sunday evening after forty-eight hours of hallucination).   The Oriental presence occupies, paradoxically, a marginal position that is pivotal to this film noir, for without Amthor the "accomplice" in Chandler, Marlowe would not have exposed the ultimate femme fatale.

            The pattern is that yellowface characters can be made to die early, like Geiger, or conveniently forgotten in the story, like Amthor, but they continue to haunt film noir or shroud it like the atmosphere.   Invisible yet ubiquitous, they constitute the very air film noir breathes in.   As such, D.O.A. (1949) locates malevolence in Majak, played by Luther Adler, whose scene is packaged with pseudo-Arabic furnishings, memorial script, music, and Majak's own darker skin tone and foreign accent.   The sadistic Chester is Majak's henchman and resembles a son to Majak.   The Orient, true to the film noir formula, is the concealed arch-villain.   It makes little difference that D.O.A. 's Oriental is Arabic and The Big Sleep 's is Chinese.   Orientalism lumps the non-Western other into one and the same, the diametrically opposed entity to the West. Into this melting pot of Orientalism also go non-white Americans.   The protagonist in D.O.A. is poisoned with a "luminous, radioactive" drink at a jazz club, Fisherman, at the fever pitch of black musicians' performance, where musicians and audience alike are flung into a delirium so uninhibited and transgressive that not only reason symbolized by the white world retreats, but evil enters into the white body as jazz and as a drink "laced" with radiation.   Film noir's self-reflexivity arises in the single drink, distilled from the collective unconscious of a nuclear age in the aftermath of   atomic bombs and the ensuing cold war, a fear projected, ironically, onto black jazz, yellowface, and femme fatale.

            In addition to the cooperation of literature and film in the cases of Hammett and Chandler, film noir needs no inspiration for Asian villains, such as D. W. Griffith's silent film The Cheat (1915), Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yin (1933), and Josef von Sternberg's Oriental films-- Morocco (1930), The Shanghai Express (1932), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and Macao (1952).   In all the film noir with a touch of yellow, self-reflexivity recurs as a subtext that points to the West's ambiguity vis-à-vis the Orient.   Oliver and Trigo have deployed Freudian theories of psychological condensation and displacement, coupled with Julia Kristeva's insights, to analyze noir anxiety.   The ever-present femme fatale character in film noir, consequently, can be construed, equally, as the condensation of male anxiety over the postwar rise of women and as the displacement of white anxiety over minorities.   Indeed, in the following two stand-alone (i.e., no literary precursors) film noir classics, femme fatale plays the dual roles. Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) feature fallen white women tainted by the East.  

            The two classics resemble each other in more ways than their femme fatale character: the set of Chinatown emerges, punctually , in the concluding scenes.   Whereas Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), Sternberg's Oriental films, and many others situate their stories within the confines of the Orient, including Chinatown, Welles and Polanski prefer to, in true film noir fashion, spinkle their works with Oriental flavor.   Nevertheless, Chinatown is treated as a point of reference, a subtext: though largely absent from the film, it "wills" the action towards itself.   The Lady from Shanghai and Chinatown deploy Chinatown as the site of denouement, or rather, dark enlightenment, where mystery and evil brewing throughout the film boil into senseless bloodbath.   The actions of both films proceed without any strong connection to Chinatown, except perfunctory and yet eerily predestined allusions to Chinatown to foreshadow the final rendezvous with evil.   If Welles inherits the film noir trademarks in its darkness and expressionism, Polanski transposes the fatalistic world view to sunny Southern California.   If Welles' screen seems forever haunted by night and shadows--despite the fact that it is largely filmed on location in the San Francisco Bay area and in Acapulco, Mexico, Polanski's curls at the edges from the unrelenting heat.   The former needs the relief of sunlight, the latter water.   The lack of these sources of life drives the plots toward their Chinatown endings.    

            One shot in black-and-white and the other in color, both films revolve around tense triangular relationships which culminate in murders.   In The Lady from Shanghai , the private detective character in film noir is taken by Michael O'Hara--played by the director Welles with an affected Irish accent--a sailor with the nickname "Black Irish, " doubly othering the protagonist.   O'Hara is courted by Mrs. Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister (Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale) and the crippled Mr. Arthur Bannister, supposedly as a member of the crew on their yacht en route from New York to the West Coast via the Panama Canal.   George Grisby is Arthur Bannister's partner in the law firm.   The Bannisters and Grisby regard one another with thinly-veiled hostility, which O'Hara aptly describes, drawing from a sailor's yarn, as the frenzy of sharks feeding on themselves. As J. P. Telotte contends in Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (1989), Michael's tale of sharks eating one another points to the Bannisters' and Grisby's "self-destructivesness," "the consumptive nature of their desires" (63).   A self-reflexive gesture, it heralds the film's famous "mirror maze conclusion" (65), during which the Bannisters shoot each other.   To Arthur's confession that "Of course, killing you is killing myself," Michael reprises the sharks story: "Like the sharks, mad with their own blood, chewing away on themselves," a refrain that loops back to the central marine metaphors.   Already in the earlier aquarium sequence, in Telotte's words, "predatory sea creatures--sharks, alligators, and the octopus and barracuda" are glimpsed through water, glasses, and air by Michael and Elsa as well as with Michael and Elsa by the audience--school-age museum visitors and us (65). Between characters and audience lie transparent layers of props and time, allowing one to "see through" the separation of self and other.

            Chinatown , on the other hand, follows the private detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, as he unravels the slaying of Hollis Mulwray, a crime involving both his wife Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and Evelyn's powerful father Noah Cross (John Huston).   The two triangular relationships resemble each other in its composition of a besieged white masculinity, a beautiful and mysterious femme fatale, and a handicapped, degenerate man.   Both Cross and Bannister are older and frail, their physical handicap signifying pathology of the mind.

            Both films are also similar in their facile deployment of Chineseness as the marker of alienness, incomprehensibility, and, ultimately, dark recesses of the soul.   References to Chineseness are scattered throughout.   Both Elsa and Evelyn have ties with Chinese and employ Asian domestics.   Elsa is a White Russian brought up in Shanghai; however, the dialect she uses is Cantonese rather than Shanghainese.   On the yacht, Elsa claims to O'Hara that she first learns to say love in Chinese and proceeds to give several pseudo-Confucian aphorisms.   Things Chinese are strategically placed to highlight the amorous relationship between the protagonists.   The fact that neither the performers nor the bulk of the audience could fathom these Chinese references serves to mystify and intensify their love.   Welles meticulously choreographs the following scene to suffuse the yacht with the calm of the eye of a typhoon--this time by means of the Other symbolized by the working-class crew.   Asked by Arthur Bannister and George Grisby to sing a love song for entertainment, Elsa lays on the deck and sings to the guitar from below the deck, the crews' quarter.   Michael O'Hara, the Black Irish, and the ill-used black cook, joined by the other crew, lift up their faces toward the song of longing and pain.   Conflicts of emotions, races, and social classes are barely suppressed below the deck.

            To expressionistically represent the precarious human condition, Welles favors extreme camera angles.   When Grisby makes the bizarre proposition of having himself murdered, the high-angle camera captures a close-up of Grisby's face, which looms large on the screen, a chiaroscuro against the steep precipice into the ocean.   A vertigo of a shot, O'Hara is being sucked into a maddening whirlpool.   (The same technique is used in the final scene at the magic mirror maze to frame Elsa's upturned, crazed gaze--a hypnotic state not unlike Carmen Sternwood's at Geiger's house--as she confesses to her evil intent.)   Grisby is portrayed as a despicable grotesque through repeated close-ups of his sweaty, fleshy face and shrill cackles.   But the openly groteqsue character proves no match for the torturous scheme of the Bannisters and is soon murdered.   The film then ends with a gallery of grotesques exposed in Chinatown and the crazy house.

            The Lady from Shanghai runs eighty-seven minutes, only the final one-eighth of the film set in Chinatown and its psychic extension.   O'Hara is framed for Grisby's death and Arthur Bannister is his defense attorney.   Awaiting the jury's verdict, which is surely to be guilty, Elsa motions for O'Hara to swallow Arthur's bottle of pain killer left on the table.   In the ensuing chaos, O'Hara manages to overpower the guards trying to resuscitate him and escapes to the nearby Chinatown in San Francisco.   Delirious from overdose of sedatives, O'Hara stumbles into a Peking Opera house, where the film is brought to a crescendo of unintelligibility by way of the cacophony of gongs, drums, and shrill singing.   The five minutes of Chinatown's street scene and Peking Opera serve not only to depict O'Hara fleeing the law but also taking leave of his senses, the usual self of rationality.   Ray Pratt in Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film (2001) observes that the climax of The Lady from Shanghai is set "in San Francisco's Chinatown, moving from an incomprehensible Chinese opera there directly into the acclaimed funhouse mirrors sequence, thereby adding a further dimension of inscrutability" (117).   When O'Hara comes to, he finds himself trapped inside a crazy house, left there by Elsa and her Chinese accomplices.   These last five minutes of the film set in an amusement park on the pier by the sea are a culmination of the Chinatown sequence.   No longer drugged, O'Hara's unstable mental state continues to be expressionistically projected onto the gadgets at the crazy house, in particular, the magic mirror maze, where the showdown of the Bannisters takes place.   The couple kills each other amidst multiple mirrors, but only after shattering all their reflections in glasses do they succeed.   The crazy house, epitomizing the irrational and the insane, is accessed through Chinatown, the entryway into the Orient.   While the mirror maze perpetuates the Oriental myth, Welles subconsciously debunks it by the Bannisters' self-reflections therein.   Just as glasses merely showcase the onlooker, Chinatown exteriorizes what lies deep within the Western Self.

            Similar to Elsa Bannister, Evelyn is surrounded by "Orientals" in Chinatown . The Mulwray mansion is maintained by a troop of Asian servants--butler, maid, chauffeur, and gardener, yet another film noir trait, as in Murder, My Sweet .   All these Orientals are comically stiff, their performance swinging between aloof automatons and frantic clowns. 1   Seemingly peripheral to the plot, these Asians channel the action to the climax.   Without Elsa's and Evelyn's loyal Chinese chauffer and butler, for instance, they will not be able to find temporary refuge in Chinatown.   Without the setting of Chinatown, Welles and Polanski will not be able to find a vehicle in which to encapsulate their dark visions.   More pointedly, the pidgin refrain of Evelyn's Asian gardener--"Vely bad for glass!" ("Very bad for the grass!")--concerning the salt water in the miniature pond of the Mulwray estate unlocks the entire mystery: The unscrupulous Cross secretly diverts water from Los Angeles' reservoir during a drought; Hollis objects and is drowned in this pond, since briny water is found in his lungs; Cross' broken bifocals lie at the bottom of the pond, possibly shaken loose as he struggles to kill Hollis.

            Glasses improve eyesight, but they give away the murder. With one unwitting mispronunciation ("glass" for "grass") from a negligible extra, the detective Gittes perceives his own blindness in missing the evidence close-by, in the Mulwray mansion.   The Oriental gardener, totally suppressed and hardly remembered, performs only one function: to retrieve the glasses from the pond and to hand them over to Gittes, respectfully, with both hands.   But without his one line and his one act, the film would be hard put to proceed. Not to mince words, the gardener in his pidgin enlightens Gittes, whose epiphany strikes as he parrots, with a contemptuous snicker, the Oriental tongue.   Polanski intends the key word to echo a multitude of images: glasses in water, reflections of reflections, lost vision found and lost again when Evelyn Mulwray is shot right in the eye.  

            The private detective Jake Gittes used to serve as a police officer in Los Angeles' Chinatown.   The District Attorney's advice to him during his Chinatown days, namely, "You may think you know what you're dealing with but you don't," is being sounded once again by Noah Cross.   As if bearing out the validity of the advice, Gittes tries in vain to protect Evelyn, repeating his previous failure to shield a woman in Chinatown.   As opposed to the statuesque Elsa, Evelyn is high-strung, becoming almost hysterical whenever the subject of her father comes up in conversation.   She even develops a stutter pronouncing: "Hollis and my f-f-father," a Freudian slip over the "f" sound (and the "f" word) denoting an incestuous monstrosity.   It turns out that the teenage Evelyn and Noah Cross had a relationship which begot Katherine.   The name Noah Cross is a deliberate sacrilege of the Christian faith: a reprehensible Noah carrying the cross of sin, siring a bloodline out of incest.   In addition to slaying Hollis Mulwray who attempts to stop his scheme of rechanneling water, Cross wishes to repossess Katherine, his granddaughter or, rather, younger daughter.   Satan incarnate, Cross realizes his design in the Chinatown finale when Evelyn is killed by the police and Katherine is escorted away by Cross who identifies himself as her grandfather.   Man's prosecution of the law in the shooting death abets the desecration of God's Law. 2

            Gittes' associate at this point tries to pull him away from the crime scene, uttering, practically, the last line of the film: "Forget it, Jake!   It's Chinatown!"   A pathetic commentary, the reference to Chinatown transfers darkness within oneself to an Other.   Incest is by definition transgression against one's own progeny.   The concluding line, however, removes the guilt, blaming it on Chinatown.   In view of the consistently deterministic vision of Polanski's corpus, the last line comes through as a directorial mockery of human beings' puny attempt to blind themselves to the truth--evil triumphs over the innocent.   Polanski thus locates his film between a retro look at the film noir era and a study of universal human condition, between Chinatown and the ways of the world, and between the eruptions of violence and the cosmetic bandages over the wounds.   If the Chinatown statement dresses up incest and homicide, the film features many more such scenes.

            Gittes the snoop has one of his nostrils cut open by Cross' thug played by Polanski himself, an unbelievably gruesome episode (but a whimsical self-mockery) one comes to expect from a vintage Polanski.   In the remainder of the film, Gittes appears either with white gauze over his nose or with a scar which bleeds periodically.   In revenge, Gittes nearly smashes another thug's skull, whose head is henceforth covered in bandages.   Finally, Evelyn reveals the incest during a savage beating by Gittes.   Punctuated by Gittes' slaps, she blurts out that the young girl is both her sister and her daughter--a disorienting moment of horror paralleled only by Oedipus' realization of his sins.   While playing no role whatsoever in Western construct of transgression and sin, Chinatown is made into a microcosm of malevolence.  

            After this review of a touch of yellow in film noir, let me turn the table and conclude on a touch of film noir in yellow. Wayne Wang's Chan is Missing (1981) is a classic in Asian American filmmaking, but one with echoes of film noir.   It is a detective story in search of a missing person, both the "schamus" and the "shadowy" target reminding one of Charlie Chan; it is set in Chinatown and uses images therein self-reflexively.   Wayne Wang came to the United States for college after having graduated from high school in Hong Kong.   Chan is Missing is made in the wake of Wang's stint as a social worker in San Francisco's Chinatown, an experience which consolidate d a close identification with the community.   The film follows two Chinatown-based taxi drivers Jo and Steve, part-time sleuths, as they look, in vain, for a Chan Hung, who owes them $4,000.   "Chan Hung is sort of a metaphor for Chinatown," asserts Wang in a 1984 interview. "[Chan Hung] was a blank page" ( Wang's interview with Diane Mei Lin Mark published as an appendix to the script of Chan is Missing in 1984, 1 05).   Resisting the comical stereotype of the detective Charlie Chan, Chan is the mystery that remains beyond reach throughout.   Each person interviewed by Jo and Steve entertains a different theory as to why Chan disappears: trouble with the law over a traffic accident, political disputes between pro-China and pro-Taiwan factions in Chinatown, escape for financial reasons, and problems of romance implied by references to "the other woman."   Peter X. Feng in "Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: Chan Is Missing " notes that Chan is Asian America always in the process of becoming, never fixed and static. During the inquiry, we learn more about Jo and Steve than about Chan.   (Ultimately, the film sheds more light on the society which begets a missing Chan than on Chan himself.)   The older Jo, the narrator, is genuinely concerned about and sympathetic toward Chan, whereas his Americanized nephew Steve wishes, most of all, to retrieve his share of the money.   The age difference partly accounts for their divergent attitudes.   To fend off Steve's resolution to go to the police, Jo even volunteers to compensate Steve for his share.   Steve instinctively resorts to the American authority perhaps because he comes of age in the post-civil rights era.   Jo, on the other hand, has a longer memory that leads him to distrust the police.   In addition to the revelations about Jo and Steve, all the speculations about Chan's disappearance reflect the speculators' own desires.   Of course, Wang implies that the perceptions of Chinese Americans by the mainstream culture, such as Charlie Chan, are in fact projections of America's own longings and anxieties.

            Imageries of water and reflections on glasses recur in the film, crystalizing the fluidity of Chan, of Chinatown, and of Chinese Americans.   Some prolonged shots of the storefront glasses record passengers waiting for the bus and, symbolically, for Godot.   Searching for Chan in Manilatown, Jo and Steve talk with a Filipino American who likens Chan to a puddle in the street, a mirror for the onlooker's own face.   Repeated shots of the ever-changing sea waves frame the protagonists' futile attempt.   The amateur detectives seem to be trying to arrest the sea, to rid it of all the complexities and contradictions.   However, Wayne Wang the social activist does not allow Chan is Missing to be solely a refutation of Orientalist stereotypes, which obliquely confirms the dominance of Orientalism.   Ignoring potential mainstream resistance , Wang features, unflinchingly, immigrant's "J'accuse."   Few American moviegoers are receptive to anti-American tirades like the one delivered by Peter Wang, mostly in untranslated Mandarin, in Chan is Missing .   Peter Wang, the director of   The Great Wall (1985), plays a disillusioned, leftist cook at a Chinese restaurant.   The same orders of sweet and sour dishes from American customers only force him to, psychosomatically, down more Mylanta for his heartburn.   Having come to this country to pursue an advanced degree and ended up a cook, he has concluded that ethnic struggles would get Chinese Americans nowhere.   "We've been here one hundred and fifty years, they still haven't accepted us," he pessimistically advises, "They haven't accepted us because they don't want to accept us."   Instead of being dismissed as the gripe of the disenfranchised, Peter Wang's "punchline," strategically delivered in English in his stream of Mandarin, articulates the inequity of the system felt by people of color.   As such, even the untranslated Mandarin becomes an uncompromising stance on minority identity, whereby English-speaking equates with imposed assimilation.   The film further concludes with an ironic juxtaposition of the soundtrack and the filmic images.   The song "Grant Avenue U.S.A." from Flower Drum Song (1961), which celebrates the myth of model minority, accompanies scenes of Chinatown confinement: turtles and snakes in cages; an autistic elderly woman clutching window bars and rocking to and fro.   While the music celebrates a carefree, upwardly-mobile Orient, Wang's visual language cuts open the hypocrisy and exposes a bleeding ghetto.   Pain and suffering are palpably real amidst a Chinatown that is far m o re than reflection of white yearnings.  

A touch of yellow in film noir has consistently embodied the West's own dreams and nightmares, while film noir , subconsciously, abort the process of transference by means of self-reflections in mirrors, glasses, photographs, and water .   An experimental film like Wayne Wang's looks back at American society from the vacant gaze of a missing person, but to play one on the noir horde in the discursive game on Orientalism seem s a mismatch with a fixed outcome : Wang's Charlie Chan may be dead and gone, but the yellowface detective would surely return from the grave .







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