When Ellen arrives home, she insists naively that New York means “freedom,” but when May’s party for Ellen is snubbed by every respectable family on the island, Wharton’s narration again takes center stage, stating, “We all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs. Archer knew these signs. They were not subtle and they were not meant to be. They were more than a simple snubbing. They were an eradication.”
On the word “eradication,” a montage ends with Pfeiffer looking directly into the camera before her entire face is obliterated by the fading color red—the color of passion. The only emotion these people still know is the thrill of control, and how to wield that power like a Viking. Newland spares Ellen, at least in that moment, by pleading her case before the van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), the Vanderbilts in all but name. It’s no different than Liotta’s Henry begging Paulie (Paul Sorvino) not to whack him after getting caught selling coke on the streets. Scorsese even picks out Wharton’s line about how “Archer appealed to their exquisitely refined sense of tribal order.”
It is only a momentary reprieve, though, and as Newland and Ellen get closer, fixating on stolen moments via holding hands, or Archer helping with the Countess’ coat, it becomes all so desperate that when they finally do collapse into each other’s arms, they appear more like prisoners who’ve abandoned all hope than lovers. In the end, Archer must marry May and accept an extravagant honeymoon that ends not on a classic, rounded Hollywood iris, but stark lines of black fading into each side of the frame. They’re pinning Archer in with his wife. He’s caught between prison bars and his jailor.
Of course the other tragedy is Newland is oblivious to his wife’s cunning throughout their long marriage, even as he slowly becomes aware that he’s been played a fool among his society friends and acquaintances. It slowly dawns on him that they all believe he and the Countess Olenska are having an affair (and emotionally, they are), yet even when realizing his wife thinks this too, he still condescends to the sweet creature, perceiving her calm serenity to be “a negation of depth.”
In this way, she is a better smiling assassin than any of the tough guys who got to whack Pesci in various Scorsese joints. Archer is incapable of recognizing why his wife wears her wedding satins for the first time in several years until he later learns that on the same day, she convinced her cousin to return to Europe and her abusive husband by lying to Ellen that she is pregnant. By the time Newland realizes everyone is now against him, including Ellen, it’s far too late. He’s already been executed.
As he sits at a fancy dinner among friends afterward, we are told, “Archer saw all the harmless people as a band of quiet conspirators, with himself and Ellen the center of their conspiracy. He guessed himself to have been for months the center of countless, silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears. He understood that, somehow, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and he knew that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife. He was a prisoner in the center of an armed camp.”