Monday, March 24, 2008

Target #204: The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)

TSPDT placing: #412
Directed by: Orson Welles (uncredited)
Written by: Sherwood King (novel), Orson Welles (screenplay), William Castle, Charles Lederer, Fletcher Markle (all uncredited)
Starring: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford

In discussing the portfolio of Orson Welles, it's difficult not to detect a certain level of tragedy inherent throughout his career. Welles was very much a director who always did what he wanted, a behaviour that caused frequent clashes with anxious studio heads, and, owing to an approach to film-making that was ahead of its time, often translated to poor box-office receipts. Widely-celebrated masterpieces such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Touch of Evil (1958) took decades to achieve the reputation that they hold today, and each proved considerable disappointments for the studios responsible, leading to Welles' eventual departure from Hollywood, towards a European career that was fraught with constant financial difficulties. The Lady from Shanghai (1947), likewise, wasn't a smashing success upon it's initial release, and, indeed, one might suggest that Welles did everything possible to ensure that it would fail at the box-office: he filled the screen with bizarre, unlikable characters, and effectively diluted the star-appeal of then-wife Rita Hayworth by shearing and dyeing her famous red hair.
The first forty minutes of The Lady from Shanghai left me relatively indifferent, in the sense that I had no idea where the story was heading, and couldn't understand the significance of the film's events to date. My reaction, apparently, differs little from that of Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn, who couldn't decipher Welles' labyrinthian tale, and demanded that somebody explain it to him. The story itself was lifted from Sherwood King's novel, "If I Die Before I Wake," which was chosen practically at random. Welles had offered to adapt the book when Cohn gave him an urgently-needed $55,000 to finance costuming for his musical stage-show, "Around the World in Eighty Days." Filming for the film took place, in addition to the Columbia Pictures studios, in San Francisco and Acapulco, Mexico, aboard a yacht belonging to none other than Errol Flynn. Welles' original cut for the film ran 155 minutes, but, as occurred with tragic regularity through his career, the studio raised their scissors to his picture, slicing off at least an hour of footage.

It is perhaps because of this studio interference that The Lady from Shanghai cuts rather choppily from a thriller to a courtroom drama. The trial episode is played largely for satire, with Welles emphasising the blatant disorder of the courtroom, abound with constant interruptions from noisy audience members and sneezing jurors {one cut juxtaposes the judge playing chess with an aerial shot of the courtroom, suggesting that it's all just a perverted game}. Welles' inventive use of the camera is always a treat to observe; in one sequence, as Michael (Welles) speaks with George (Glenn Anders) atop an ocean lookout, the downwards-angled camera dangles the two characters over a fatal precipice. The film's climax is absolutely unforgettable, a gripping and innovative shoot-out in a carnival house of mirrors. As each character blasts away at illusory images of their enemies, the bullets shatter their own reflected profiles, fulfilling Michael's foreshadowing anecdote that compares Elsa (Hayworth) and Arthur (Everett Sloane) to sharks gnawing feverishly at their own flesh.
8/10; my predictability is beginning to annoy even me!

Currently my #4 film of 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
4) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
5) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)


ressot3 said...

Watched it last night. I agree completely with your review. That mirror scene sure was great, though.

ackatsis said...

Good to hear!

This was my sixth film from Orson Welles. The rankings currently look like:
1) Citizen Kane (1941)
2) Le Procès {The Trial} (1962)
3) Touch of Evil (1958)
4) Vérités et mensonges {F for Fake} (1974)
5) The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
6) The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Of course, 'The Third Man' trumps them all!