The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting this blogathon all about Femme and Homme Fatales in Film Noir. Be sure to visit the CMBA site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself. I’ve decided to write about Elsa Bannister from The Lady From Shanghai. There are spoilers ahead about what happens to this character.
I am such a big fan of Film Noir. I think I would even go so far as to call myself a Noir addict. Noir films are absolutely amazing!One of my favourite things about Noir films is the strong and memorable roles that these films offered to actresses during the classic film era. Many actresses did some of their best work in Noir films.
Few characters are more memorable in Noir films than the Femme Fatales. Femme Fatales are very clever and strong women. They are also dangerous, dominating, intriguing, sexy, and most important of all, they are very alluring. Femme Fatales are women who draw men to them like flames draw moths.
One of my favourite Femme Fatales is Elsa Bannister(Rita Hayworth)in The Lady From Shanghai. Elsa is a very interesting Femme Fatale, because while she is certainly a ruthless and clever manipulator, she also ends up destroying herself and leading herself to her own fate.
One look at Elsa Bannister and you have no difficulty understanding why Michael(Orson Welles)falls under her spell. Elsa is a prime example of a woman who men should stay well away from. Elsa is one of the most unforgettable Femme Fatales in the history of Noir films. She has the ability to make herself seem vulnerable and unhappy one moment, and then she becomes a cold and calculating b***h the next moment. Elsa is a good actress and knows exactly how to get and keep her audiences (in this case Michael)attention.
Rita Hayworth’s trademark thick red hair was cropped and dyed blonde for this role. This was done on the instruction of director Orson Welles(also Rita’s husband at the time of filming), this decision angered the Columbia studio head, Harry Cohen. In my view Mr. Cohen should have chilled out. Orson Welles was right to transform Rita for this role. Rita’s new look works wonders for the character.
Rita’s new screen image. Screenshots by me.
The effect of her new image makes Rita look like Deborah Kerr’s Karen in From Here To Eternity. Much as it did for Deborah Kerr in that film, Rita’s new screen image as Elsa makes her look sexier, harder and cooler than she had ever done before. Rita oozes sex and seduction whenever you see her on screen in this film.
This role was quite a change for Rita. She usually played quite bubbly characters who were basically good girls.Even her iconic character in Gilda is really a good and decent woman. The role of Elsa enabled Rita to play a darker and crueller character than audiences were used to seeing her play.
When Michael first meets Elsa he can’t keep his distance from her. It really isn’t difficult to see why he is so drawn to her. He wants her, he thinks endlessly about her, and he is wrongly led to believe that she needs him and likes him.
Elsa (just like all Femme Fatales) is like one of those deadly sirens from the old Greek legends. She is an irresistible and alluring being who leads men to a most unpleasant doom indeed.
Elsa Bannister may well be beautiful and desirable on the outside, but inside she is cold, selfish and heartless. We may at first feel some pity for her at having such an unhappy marriage, but we soon learn that Elsa doesn’t really deserve our sympathy at all. Elsa may well want to break free from her marriage prison, but setting up Michael and leading him on isn’t the way to break free to happiness.
Elsa is clever, but she is also a poor judge of character and is way too sure of herself. When she lures Michael into her web she is also inadvertently sealing her own fate. When he learns that she planned to set him up for murder, Michael is quickly done with her forever. Michael walks away from her after she is shot in the fun house finale. Michael will never be able to forget her though. He will also never lose his genuine feelings for her, but he is at least now free to live in the light and try and have some sort of a happy life.
When Michael gets wise to Elsa, she learns(all too late)the cost of using people and treating them like dirt.
Elsa is still so sure till the last moment of her life that she is irresistible to Michael. She is still so sure that things will go her way.
She soon realises that she isn’t as irresistible as she thinks. The irony is that Michael genuinely cared about her. Michael could have made her happy if she had gone away with him and not used him. Unfortunately the only person Elsa has ever loved is herself.
Elsa Bannister dies alone, crying and screaming for help. While her fate may sound rather cold and cruel, her death is actually the fate that she deserved. As deserved as it is, it certainly can’t be denied that Elsa’s death is a lonely and harsh one. Her death sees her lying on the floor of the dark hall of mirrors, discarded like a piece of rubbish that has been dropped on the floor.
Elsa’s behaviour and fate stand as a warning to all the characters who we see throughout Film Noir. Getting too wrapped up in revenge, temptation, lust, murder, and hate can only end in unhappiness and death. You can only use and push people so far before they push back. You can only step so far into the darkness before you are consumed entirely by it.
I find it very difficult to imagine any other actress in the role of Elsa Bannister. Rita inhabits and plays the role of Elsa Bannister to perfection. Rita’s performance is seductive and mesmerising. It’s one of Rita’s best performances in my opinion. With Rita playing Elsa, the character could also be viewed as showing us what could have happened to Rita’s other famous character in Gilda. Imagine what Gilda would have been like if she had lost her warmth and instead become soulless and cold? I think we have the answer to that in the form of Elsa Bannister.
Elsa Bannister leaves a lasting impression on anyone who watches Lady From Shanghai. She has become one of the most iconic of the Noir Femme Fatales. What are your thoughts on Elsa?
Do you love Film Noir? If you do, I would love to invite you to join my Noirathon.