The Lady From Shanghai (1947)
In the past the Menagerie has drawn deep at the well of Welles, as we’ve tackled two of the most discussed and analysed pictures in US cinema history – Kane and Ambersons. There is evidently something in the water when it comes to the portly prestidigitator, as my recent ‘Movies You Should See’ post touched on The Trial, a few podcasts I listen to have dedicated episodes to Orson, and when I saw that the BFI were screening the legendary noir The Lady From Shanghai as part of their recent Rita Hayworth season I knew we had another elderly picture to port to the pantheon. Long before the likes of ‘Bradgelina’ scandalised the Hollywood gossip columns figures such as Hedda Hooper and Louella Parsons were the all-powerful industry matriarchs whose withering wit could make or break film careers (the savage Nikki Finke is probably the most recent example), and the tumultuous romance between Welles and Hayworth on-set of this turbulent picture was the fodder of scandal drenched periodicals around the globe back in those immediate post war years. The main difference between Shanghai and the likes of Mr. & Mrs Smith is that the film itself endures as a curious classic beyond the fading celebrity chatter, with subsequent analysis identifying the movie as either Welles strychnine poisoned Valentine to Hayworth or a gloomy paean to a remorse fueled marriage, either way it’s a curiously ambivalent and fractured piece which inverts and perverts the traditional trappings of noir, with one of the all time great film climaxes – but let’s not be premature. I think there are four essential pictures when it comes to Welles if you fancy yourself as a budding fan of film, sure the Shakespeare adaptations and more esoteric fare such as Mr. Arkadin or The Stranger are essential for the serious acolytes of cinema, but above the iceberg of Welles stormy career squat four essential masterpieces, some in their truncated and savaged forms but masterpieces nonetheless – Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch Of Evil and The Lady From Shanghai.
With a slightly jarring oirish accent which quickly retreats into the films resigned voiceover tempo Welles is Michael O’Hara, a roguish wandering soul who spies the beautiful Elsa Bannister (the platinum predatory Rita Hayworth) emerging from a dark Central Park night astride a regal horse-drawn carriage – resplendent, remote and rotten. After saving this perfumed vision from the clutches of a gang of hooligans with less than gentlemanly intentions O’Hara is drawn into Elsa’s ichorous web, as her lawyer husband Arthur Bannister (the elongated Everett Sloane) hires him as a bosun for a sudoric Pacific cruise down the Western coast of Mexico, accompanied by his professional partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Panting like a dog in both a sexual and environmental heat O”Hara resists temptation until Grisby makes him an offer he can’t refuse, $5,000 in cash should he agree to kill him, sign a confession and ensure his family receives a lucrative insurance payout, thus supplying O’Hara with the funds to elope with his auricomous objet d’amour. Of course all the members of this quadratic quagmire are playing their own angle and obscuring insatiable ulterior motives, and soon the double crosses are proliferating faster than the scoreboards of an elite class tic-tac-toe championship.
This was Welles last dreamy drenched dalliance with Hollywood before his final exile to European shores for the next decade (until 1958’s Touch Of Evil), not content the tow the party line he insisted on experimentation and manipulation of the form, transforming a somewhat conventional dime store pulp thriller into a torpid maelstrom of mistrust and unease, a perilous gaze into the spaces between lust and trust. It’s noir in style but with an off-kilter infection, instead of unfolding in tawdry drinking dens or neon splashed streets The Lady Of Shanghai takes the genre motifs and charts them to a nautical road movie, as the sweltering cruise raises the temperature with every beachfront pause. Any tensile continuity is certainly absent and from a purely narrative perspective some of the tendrils simply don’t make sense, but it wouldn’t be a Orson Welles production if it didn’t have some sense of a mutilated, shredded remanent of what might have been, and personally I think The Lady From Shanghai is perfectly concise in its supposedly truncated form, a gut punch of a movie rather than an expanded, bloated corpse. Instead the film coasts on its own internal momentum with its own pungent vernacular – this sequence for example is just incredible;
That scene is just terrific and is so far ahead of its time, with an inspired drizzle of particularly Wellesian humour, it’s unusual for the era (well, at least for a studio production) to texture the plot with a sense of setting and locale shading the experiences of the characters, those slimy predators pulsating in the background as a sinful murder is hatched. The film has the aura of a bad dream or a fractured nightmare, with a stuttering gait which results from the scything scissors of the studio editors, with mirrors and reflections refracting a twirling twisted tempo, all accompanied by a saturation of water motifs as forces as implacable as the tide coalesce around these smothered souls.
In fact the primary strength that enthralled me during this screening was the cinematography, the film is signalled in the black and white shadows and in terms of sexual malaise this is much more than a simpletons thirty shades of grey, it’s all the more remarkable considering that assistant cameraman Donald Ray Cory died during filming, chief cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. was frequently ill which left the legendary (and uncredited) Rudolph Maté to lens many unidentified and uncertain portions of the tale. From a purely contemporary perspective the way that during this period they elevated these leading ladies to the stature of screen goddesses is plain to see, placing them on a pedestal as remote as Aphrodite’s boudoir, with a loving caress of the camera elevating the siren to legandary levels. As well as Welles and Hayworth’s inperfections the support given by Everett Sloane has an implacable swagger, he has something of a craven Philip Seymour Hoffman of his day, with the character actor Glenn Anders also provoking a sense of mischievous plotting and submerged, murderous dread. In one deft sequence before the latter courtroom circus a dialogue scene is held in a simple two-shot, and rather than cutting between the two principals Welles moves the camera in an incremental dolly as the information and revelations swarm across Elsa’s face, it’s very much a standard way to cover a scene these days but in 1947 this was truly revolutionary, and although deep focus was standard by this point Welles method of compositionally linking figures in the frame through their causal narrative relationships remains as powerful and subconsciously inspired as any deployment in either the earlier Kane or its magnificent twin brother Ambersons. The decisions to shoot on location gives the final San Francisco Chinatown showdown a palpable sense of inscrutable immediacy – not to mention forging an incestuous link with another celluloid land of the orient – it’s almost as if the final contortions of this hollow romance are finally revealed to O’Hara and the audience in immediate juxtaposition, a powerful conclusion as O’Hara wanders resignedly broken into the horizon.
Some flotsam and jetsam to close, Rita Hayworth is a fascinating figure and one of the prime examples of the vertiginous gulf between the sultry silver screen and tedious non-fiction reality, that perilous space between persona and perfection. The woman who (if you’ll excuse the expression) pulled off this classic scene was obsequious, shy and supposedly mousey in the extreme, pushed around by studio executives and her co-stars she was quite the fragile, forlorn figure, ultimately devoured by the illusory system of the chiaroscuro demigods. Married miserably no less than five times she suffered regular emotional cruelty and intolerable infidelity, urging her to make the now classic pronouncement that her problem was that ‘men went to bed with Rita Hayworth, and then they woke up with me’. At the shocking age of forty-two she began to exhibit early onset Alzheimer’s – yes that’s right dementia at the age of 42 – which many of her family and circle attributed to her drinking practices, as like many of her peers and contemporaries they were regularly hooped on booze and amphetamines to ineffectually steady their rollercoaster lifestyles. It’s all quite sad and proves that despite all the wealth in the world and the trappings of Hollywood celebrity happiness remains an intangible concept, and Welles was just as complicit in his poor treatment of her although he is rumored to have recanted that she was the true love of his life on his deathbed. The yacht featured in the film was Errol Flynn’s and he was actually driving the vehicle just off-screen during many of the takes, as Welles decision to shot much of the film on location incurred the terrible incandescent wrath of Columbia’s caesar Harry Cohn who ordered the film butchered down from a 155 minute answer print to the currently perfect 87 minute run-time. But it’s that masterpiece climax which Shanghai should properly be venerated for, the perfect screen representation of the delirium and narcotic elixir of unadulterated film noir, plunging into a hall of mirrors where an implacable dark destiny is wielded by the natural forces of lust and greed, where deception and danger lurk at every turn, we puppets on a string cast adrift in a verisimilar vortex of jealousy and sexual manipulation which in The Lady From Shanghai strides both the real and imagined worlds of Rita and Elsa – on the big screen this is quite eeriely electrifying;