Black-and-white movies are flying out from the past like moths from the curtains. If your first instinct is to swat them, don’t. They are part of the ecology. Coincidence even marches some pairs up the aisle for dream weddings. Fancy The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Branded to Kill (1966), issued by different distributors, coinciding in the same week. Two films noirs in fabulous monochrome. Two barely comprehensible plots with existential overlay. Two films reminding us that different continents have different timelines for artistic delirium.
The 1940s, age of unease and postwar maladjustment, suited The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles’s anfractuous wonder-thriller about a Conradian bum (Welles) sailing with the girl he loves (Rita Hayworth, then Mrs Welles), inconveniently married to a rich and evil lawyer (Everett no-one-snarled-better Sloane). Borges, an early Citizen Kane devotee, would have loved the mazy self-reflexive plot leading to crime and murder. The hall-of-mirrors shootout finale is a canonic classic.
The 1960s gave us op-art visuals and caper-ish thrillers. You half expect a young Michael Caine to jump out from the harlequin compositions of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. But no: the self-flagellating nihilism with gallows mirth says: “We are Japanese, if you please.” Echoing Welles’s film are more crime, more romance (a murder-resisting femme fatale) and more elaborate pageantry of death and derangement. The hit-man hero virtually fragments before our eyes, pari passu with the movie’s syntax, atomising into stark serial tableaux. You could hang them each at the Venice Biennale and no one would blink. Handsome; mad; haunting.