It was a thrill to see PICCADILLY on the big screen at the Bo’ness Hippodrome. I confess I hadn’t been that excited about this one — I knew EA Dupont’s film looked spectacular, but I’d seen it before, I own the DVD, I can watch it anytime…
But the pristine restoration looked amazing on the big screen, and Stephen Horne’s daring multi-instrumental score was the perfect compliment. Also, this second viewing allowed me to get over a few issues I’d had with it before.
Certainly, the film is guilty of shameless exoticism (and Exoticism is Racism’s sexy sister) — the great Alfred Junge decorates Anna May Wong’s Limehouse flat with a lot of bogus frippery including some kind of Chinese version of the mult-armed Kali which I don’t think is authentic AT ALL. It all looks nice though.
But last time I was disappointed that the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears in only one scene, sitting at a table in the night club, getting stroppy about a dirty plate. Knowing this time that I wasn’t going to get much Charles, I was better able to appreciate what I got — a fantastic display of sullen, fish-faced glowering from the great man.
And the racial politics disturbed me at the end. Heavy spoilers here as there’s no other way to deal with it.
I didn’t like the way Wong turns nasty in her last scene as a living person. She’d been quite sympathetic up until then, a working class kitchen skivvy on the make, hoping for some of the wealth and comfort she sees all around her. Why not? Then she turns mean, and then she’s dead — slain off-screen as if she didn’t matter.
I got more pissed off when the two posh, Caucasian lovers are exonerated and it turns out the film’s one other Asian character, nicely played by King Hou Chan (about whom little seems to be known — one other film credit and no date of death) is the killer.
It seemed like the film served as a kind of dark racial warning — nice, rich, posh, white, English people shouldn’t get mixed up with fiendish orientals. It’s bound to end in murder.
Except that the film isn’t saying that at all, as I belatedly realized. If it were, we’d absolutely require a moment of the lovers reunited at the end, having come through their ordeal. That resolution would be the film’s entire point. But once the fact of Chan’s guilt is established, via a terrifying flashback in which Wong’s rage to live makes her once more a thoroughly sympathetic person, we never really see the erstwhile protagonists again. Dupont doesn’t show them looking relieved, or embracing. The big love scene is in the morgue, with Chan committing suicide over Wong’s body.
It’s also worth noting that the other lovers are quite unsympathetic — he’s cheating on her, and her hatred of Wong isn’t initially to do with suspicion, it’s motivated by her professional jealousy and insecurity, and it’s inflected with snobbery and racism. We can’t like Gilda Gray, despite her winning way with a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive (but she might bond with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME over this shared taste.)
The last, ironic moment headlines the words “Life goes on” and shows the entire plot reduced to a little story in a newspaper, disregarded by a reader who’s merely pleased that he’s won a bet. The big city will pause only a microsecond to acknowledge a tragedy. We’re not being reassured that the deaths we’ve seen don’t matter, we’re being shown the disturbing reality that, to society at large, such a crime is insignificant. Each man’s death does not diminish London, the crouching monster.