Thursday, June 25, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) 
Directed by: Orson Welles.
Written by: Orson Welles based on the novel by Sherwood King.
Starring: Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Orson Welles (Michael O'Hara), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Erskine Sanford (Judge), Gus Schilling (Goldie), Carl Frank (District Attorney Galloway), Louis Merrill (Jake Bjornsen), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Harry Shannon (Cab Driver). 
I don’t typically spend a lot of time on extra-textuals of a movie – the how and why it got made, because in the end it is what onscreen that matters. Those making of stories are interesting, but if what is onscreen doesn’t work, then it doesn’t really matter. The one exception though is probably the films of Orson Welles. Welles, of course, made Citizen Kane (1941) – widely considered to be the greatest film ever made as his first film, and it was really the only film of his career he got to make exactly how he wanted to make it. His Hollywood career after that was largely made up of fighting with executives, who would take his films away and recut them, leaving them not quite the films Welles wanted. Even when he escaped Hollywood, he wasn’t immune to that – and he often didn’t have the money to do what he wanted to either. Welles remains one of the great directors in film history – but also one of the greatest “What ifs” in film history. One can only imagine what Welles could have and would have done if left to his own devices.
Take The Lady from Shanghai (1947) as an example. It’s a film Welles didn’t really want to make – he agreed to do it to continue to get funding for his Around the World in 80 Days – which never did. He said he’d adapt a book he never read, and so he ended up with this noir tale. The story is full of double crosses and triple crosses – complicated murder plots and reversals. And yet Welles doesn’t seem to care much about them – leading to the film having almost a slapdash quality to it. Perhaps if we saw the full version, it wouldn’t, but what remains feel like Welles having a lark. That extends to his performance as well – where he plays an Irishman, with a brogue, who isn’t particularly bright and gets himself into trouble when he falls for the beautiful Elsa (Rita Hayworth, who Welles was married to at the time, but wouldn’t be for much longer). Welles seemingly wanted to piss everyone off – which explains some of the decisions he makes, including having Hayworth cut off her famous mane of red hair – which had made her a star in Gilda, for a shorter cut, dyed blonde. And then , of course, there is the most famous sequence in the film – the almost Avant Garde climax set in a funhouse full of mirrors, that Welles had intended to last for 20 minutes, but which is shorn down to 3 minutes here – and yet remains one of the best sequences in all of cinema.
The Lady from Shanghai then probably shouldn’t work. It is a film with a complicated narrative, then the director doesn’t seem interested in, and seems to just skip some connective tissue. How Welles and Hayworth fell in love in the movie is pretty much not there – they just are one scene. Welles also loves a lot of shots of the boat on the water, gliding through paradise, which add nothing really to the narrative. When we get to the courtroom climax – where the main character is on trial for his life, Welles pretty much plays the whole thing as a farce. Welles himself is miscast in the lead – he’d probably be better suited playing Grisby or Bannister – and in a few years, that is exactly who he would have played.
So why, then, does The Lady from Shanghai work – and for the most part wonderfully well. Is it simply because Welles is clearly having so much fun – and so is everyone else – that it rubs off on the audience? Is it because the scenes that Welles leaves out are pretty much the scenes that aren’t really needed anyway, so what you’re left with is what you’d remember anyway? Is it just that amazing climax?
I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that The Lady from Shanghai isn’t quite like anything else that Welles – or anyone really – has ever made. It’s part of the Columbia Noir collection on the Criterion Channel right now, and I’ve been churning through all of them right now. For the most part, they are fun, fast, B-movie – decent noirs, that hit the notes you expect. And then comes The Lady from Shanghai, and it’s like a noir from a different planet. I love it.

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