The Shanghai Gesture
Many classical films noirs rely upon Orientalist elements of mise-en-scène to convey a sense of enigma or unintelligibility. This article gives a name to this visual trope, “the Shanghai gesture,” and describes how Asian objects in Hollywood cinema have come to be associated with the irrational. In The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) and The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946), elements of Orientalist décor function to evoke a sense of mystery or exoticism. In many cases, these elements are little more than exoticist set-dressing. However, in some cases they come to bear the burden of explanation for unresolved aspects of the plot, or even to suggest a limit-point of western rationality. This article concludes with a discussion of The Shanghai Gesture (Sternberg, 1941), addressing both mise-en-scène and the unique circumstances that surrounded its production. Based on a play by John Colton, the property was greatly sought after by all the major Hollywood studios, and rejected numerous times by the Hays Office for its “sordid” depictions of Shanghai bawdy-houses and casinos. Archival correspondence reveals that Hays and others linked the script’s sordidness to its Asian setting. Both a hot commodity and an object in need of censorship, The Shanghai Gesture itself became an over-determined Orientalist object, at once coveted and taboo, desirable and incomprehensible.
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