Fun with aspects ratios in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

How many times can you watch a movie before you discover its secrets? I’ve probably seen Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane more than any other movie. That’s not something I set out to do; it just sort of happened that way. Ten years ago, I watched Warner Bros.’s 70th anniversary Blu-ray release and figured that was that: I had seen everything I needed to see in Kane. But then, in 2015, I saw the movie with an audience who looked young enough for this to be their first encounter. They jumped when the bird screeched in the third act—for the very reason Welles put it in there—and I was reminded just how effective technique could be. It’s quite a thing to be surrounded by 1,500 people having the same reaction.

Last summer, I was invited to lead a discussion about Kane at a retirement home. Kane is all about aging, regrets, and desperately grasping at the past before it’s all gone. Halfway through this screening, it dawned on me that I was surrounded by an audience that had fewer years in front of them than they did behind them. To see a movie through another’s eyes is to see the movie for the first time.

Ten years ago, I thought I was through with Kane. I was wrong. There’s more to discover, enough that it’s worth revisiting every couple of years. If not for new answers, then for new perspectives. It’s impossible to grab it all on the first try, and lord knows I’ve been trying to grab anything from Welles’ 1947 The Lady from Shanghai for a while now. 

Lady from Shanghai is an incomprehensible movie for myriad reasons—more in this week’s Boulder Weekly—but it’s such an attractive piece of work that I can’t help myself. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times and still get lost. So when Kino Lorber sent me their new Blu-ray release of Shanghai for review, I knew something was waiting for me to discover. Little did I expect that it was in the aspect ratio.

Some background: The year is 1947, and most—if not all—studio movies are filmed and projected in Academy ratio (1.37:1), that familiar boxy look that creates black bars on the right and the left of widescreen TVs.

Almost all of Shanghai uses this ratio until the film’s climax when the unconscious Michael (Welles) wakes up in a carnival fun house.

Notice how the sides of the frame are truncated and that the top left corner is rounded. The following sequence of Michael navigating the fun house continues the look: Narrow frame with rounded corners. Welles layers images on top of each other to create a dizzying look, further emphasizing the unnaturalness of the narrower ratio.

Then Elsa (Rita Hayworth) enters, and we’re back to a full frame with sharp corners.

But then Elsa pushes Michael into the hall of mirrors, and the image is masked on the top and bottom with black. This gives the frame the effect of a widescreen ratio, even when Arthur Banister (Everette Sloane) shows up.

Then comes the shoot-out, followed by Elsa and Michael escaping the hall of mirrors to another room. Welles continues to mask the image.

Elsa pleads, but Michael leaves. Welles uses a high-angled shot for this insert—curiously, with no masking. Could this insert have been shot at a later date?

Because when we go back for Elsa’s last breath, more masking.

And finally, one more shot of Michael walking off toward the shore, in the typical aspect ratio.

And finally, one more shot of Michael walking off toward the shore, in the typical aspect ratio.

The top and bottom masking of those images simulate the widescreen aspect ratio, 1.85: 1 or 16:9, which wouldn’t become commonplace until the 1950s. I have yet to encounter in an interview why Welles or cinematographer Charles Lawton employed this technique for Shanghai‘s climax, but I would suspect that they wanted to give the visual impression of confinement. After all, the plot has caught up with Arthur, Elsa, and Michael.

But the why is not that important. What is important is that this discovery made a movie I’ve seen a half-dozen times feel new again. How often have I seen this sequence or looked at the iconic photo at the top and failed to notice the widescreen effect? And yet, here I am, 76 years after the movie’s release, a solid 20 years after I first saw it, still digging into the minutiae of Shanghai. Funny how these things go.

The Lady from Shanghai will be released January 31 on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.