Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Kvinden fra Shanghai
Orson Welles is back!

After the mediocre ”The Stranger”, which supposedly was an attempt at making a mainstream film, Orson Welles returned to form with ”The Lady from Shanghai”. No more pleasing the public, no more pleasing the studio. Welles returned to making movies essentially to and for himself.

While this sort of cinematic masturbation often leads to horribly introspect films or artful obscurity, Welles… well, yes, this film is terribly introspect and almost impossible to work out, but he manages to invite us inside his world and shows us its wonders and so I, for one, can only enjoy it and wonder that he got away with it (which in a sense he did not, but more on that below).

This time Orson Welles has dived into the film noir genre. If you want to make something mysterious and obscure that is an excellent place to go. Granted, Welles invented many of the tricks and tools of the genre with “Citizen Kane”, but this is the first time I see a full blooded film noir from his hand. As should be expected Welles embraces the genre, but also makes it entirely his own.

The story is (of course) told in flashback by Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles himself), a sailor who has been around the world and done and seen things to make him a wise person. Despite this and his knowing better he is sucked right into an obscure plot revolving around two lawyers, George Grisby (Glenn Anders with an insane giggle), his partner, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and not least Bannisters wife, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). The lawyers are loaded and full of tricks and something strange is going on among them.  Add to that a few obscure retainers and Michael knows this is a mess he should stay out of. Except he cannot. Elsa is the femme fatale that has lured Michael into her net and because of that he cannot leave them, but accepts hire on board their luxury yacht on a voyage through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and up the coast to San Francisco.

They all want Michael for something. Arthur hired him for his own reasons, which may or may not have to do with Elsa, George wants Michael to fake a murder on him and Elsa is ostensibly in love with Michael. Of course none of those are their real reasons. As events unfold it becomes clear that nothing is clear, nobody really knows what the others are doing or why and Michael ends up accused in court for two murders, his only chance is to be defended by Arthur Bannister, who incidentally has decided that this should be the first case he would ever want to lose.

There is a resolution to the story and there is some satisfaction to the resolution, but it is not simple and it does not answer all the questions. Rather it is the kind of solution that you know nobody will ever get to the bottom of so you better just walk away and leave the mess. However those last ten minutes is probably the coolest resolution of a film noir I have ever seen. In a movie of illusions, mirages and twisted realities it is fitting that Michael finds himself dazed by an overdose of medication in a crazy house of a closed up amusement park. The mirrors and multiple distorted images are an excellent metaphor for the convoluted plots being played out. Yeah, it is just perfect.

Orson Welles apparently likes to put himself in the center of things. It seems a very narcissistic trait and this time I think he did himself a disfavor. I know that his Irish sailor is supposed to be gritty and brooding, but Welles countenance fits better to a villain. His pig face does not exactly make you trust him and I dare say that he makes a terrible first lover. Elsa’s infatuation in him seems less plausible because Michael carries Welles face. I would have much rather seen somebody like Robert Mitchum as Michael O’Hara. But that is also the only fault I can see in this film.

Rita Hayworth on the on the other hand is a perfect cast. I have in the past been lackluster about her acting abilities, but this role suited her perfectly. Welles, married to her at the time of filming, but divorced by the time of the release transformed her look from 1940’es pinup to something that frankly looks more like a 1950’ies Monroe. She looks cool and sleek, sexy but dangerous. In short, a perfect femme fatale. As the story goes Welles got into trouble with the studio for that stunt, but I think it was a clever move.

A lot of the movie relies on Hayworth’s Elsa character. It is clear that she is the anchor that keeps Michael in the story, but is she a victim and a spectator on the sideline or is she a player? And what exactly is the game? Michael seems undecided on these questions. He is perceptive enough to liken the group with bloodthirsty sharks tearing each other to pieces, but he is not sharp enough to figure out his own role in the implosion and as the saying goes, if you cannot spot the sucker it is because it is yourself.  In all this Elsa keeps all options open. We learn that she has a disreputable history in the Far East and the coldness is a giveaway too, but her magnetism is undeniable and clearly she can drive men insane.

But then again, is this about sex and possession, or is it power and money? We are never entirely sure.

From the extra material on the DVD I learned that Welles original version was 2:30 hours long, but that the studio had it reduced to less than an hour and a half and that Welles had no influence on the editing. In fact his memo with instructions was entirely ignored. I really liked what I saw here, it is an excellent movie as it is, but would the 2:30 hour version have been truly magnificent? Or would it have been a disaster a la von Stroheim’s “Greed”, only saved by miraculous editing? We may never actually know what Welles really intended with the movie or how close this version is to the original, but it certainly makes me curious.


  1. I think you liked this a little more than I did. I didn't dislike it, but I have no desire to see it again. And in regards to Hayworth I'm one of the ones who didn't like her radically different look in it, especially the dyed hair.

    1. Neither did I like her transformation in the beginning, but as the movie progressed I came to appreciate it. She just has to look cool and slick and that is what her new appearance does to her.

  2. I wasn't really sold on this film until the end. I love the ending sequence. I'm just not 100% sure that the rest of it is worth sitting through for that fantastic roller coaster funhouse sequence.

    1. I think there are a number of excellent scenes or tableau's in the film. The funhouse of course is Welles at his best, but also the mockery of the courtroom was excellent. It is clear that Welles disliked lawyers. The vertigo of the cliff scene, the weirdness of the aquarium and not least the bizarre picnic. It all works very well for me.

  3. The mirror funhouse sequence is pretty awesome. You're right, Welles wasn't really first lover material, but he was an egomaniac who disregarded his own shortcomings. I'm glad you finally found a Rita Hayworth performance that you liked.

    1. I guess it is a common trait in most people to be blind to their own faults. Welles as an actor worked well in Citizen Kane. In "The Stranger" he looks so suspect that he should not have been able to fool anybody and here, in this film, he just looks like a landed cod. What on Earth would Elsa see in him if not exploit his naivite?
      But, I can live with it when the rest is a good as it is. It just baffles me that it did so poorly at the box office.