Friday, August 10, 2012
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
In 1946 Orson Welles had scored a surprise hit with The Stranger (a movie Welles considered to be the weakest movie of his entire career). On the strength of this he was able to persuade Harry Cohn to let him make The Lady from Shanghai at Columbia. For which we can be eternally grateful to Cohn since The Lady from Shanghai is one of Welles’ greatest movies.
Welles had intended the movie to be an unassuming B-movie, but that all changed when his wife Rita Hayworth persuaded him to cast her as the female lead (she was hoping that making a movie together would save their marriage but her hopes were to be dashed). Hayworth’s presence immediately upgraded the movie to A-picture status. While Welles had not intended the picture to be such a big production on the plus side it did mean he had some real money to work with, and was able to persuade Cohn to allow him to do much of the movie on location. The movie was not released until 1948 but it was shot in 1946 making it one of the first film noir titles to be shot largely on location.
Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is a sailor with a colourful past. He thinks he’s seen a great deal of life but he is about to find himself frighteningly out of his depth. He has just met Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and now his life is about to spin dangerously out of control. Elsa is married to the country’s top criminal lawyer, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael knows that chasing married women is a bad idea but it’s too late now. He’s hooked. It’s actually Arthur Bannister who persuades him to sign on as crew for the couple’s luxury yacht. When a married woman’s husband persuades a man he knows is obsessed with his wife to join them on a cruise, well when that happens the smart thing to do is to run. But Michael hasn’t done a single smart thing since he met Elsa.
Also on board the yacht is Arthur Bannister’s law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders). It’s immediately clear that Arthur and Elsa Bannister and George Grisby are three very strange and dangerous people. They enjoy playing games with other people, the way a cat enjoys playing games with mice. In one memorable scene Michael compares them to sharks so crazed by blood that they devour each other. In fact, compared to this trio, sharks are comparatively harmless creatures.
It’s also clear that the Bannisters’ marriage is deeply unhealthy. Arthur Bannister is a cripple and he’s much older than Elsa. It’s never explicitly stated but we’re free to assume that Elsa doesn’t get much satisfaction out of the marriage, either sexual or emotional. In fact it appears that Arthur Bannister gets his jollies from watching innocents like Michael take the offered bait and then watching them wriggle once they’re hooked.
The games played by the Bannisters and by Grisby will lead to murder and Michael will find himself caught in the middle. The really dangerous thing is that this is a game where there are three puppet-masters all pulling the strings. Michael is hopelessly out of his depth, and he’s more obsessed by Elsa than ever.
This is film noir but it’s more than just film noir. It’s also a psycho-sexual thriller and Welles is at the top of his form. The movie died at the US box office although it did very well in Europe. Harry Cohn had been hoping for a straightforward crime thriller but he’d hired Orson Welles and what he got was an Orson Welles movie. Stylistically this is perhaps the most flamboyant and eccentric thing Welles had done up to that point in his career. It was all much too much for American audiences at the time. The casting of Rita Hayworth may also have damaged the movie’s chances because this was most definitely not what audiences expected from a Rita Hayworth movie.
Welles had decided to change Hayworth’s image radically. The long red locks were shorn (much to Harry Cohn’s horror) and her hair was died blonde. The change of image was appropriate since this movie and this role were very different from anything Hayworth had done before. Audiences might not have been pleased but in fact Hayworth is absolutely superb. This movie should have established her credentials as a serious actress once and for all, but it was not to be.
Welles’ performance is very good but he’s overshadowed by the other major players. I’m certain this was a deliberate decision on his part. Michael O’Hara is a regular guy who finds himself in a world of extravagant psychologically pathological exotics. Michael is the fly in a web spun by three spiders and it’s important that he should be shown as being powerless. He is not calling the shots. He quite rightly keeps his own performance as low-key as possible.
Hayworth as Elsa, Everett Sloane as her husband and Glenn Anders as Grisby dominate the movie and all give powerhouse performances. Hayworth this time is a true femme fatale (which she had not been in Gilda) and she exudes a terrifyingly potent but dangerous sexuality. In one scene Arthur Bannister explains that a tough guy is a guy who has an edge. His edge comes from money and from his powerful if twisted intellect. Elsa’s edge is sex and she knows how to use it.
The movie was shot on location in San Francisco and Mexico and on board Errol Flynn’s yacht (with, according to some accounts, Flynn below decks drunk as a lord and thoroughly enjoying the proceedings). The making of the movie was delayed when Hayworth fell ill and as a result the location shooting was curtailed and the picture had to be completed on a sound stage. Welles always firmly believed that a director should be prepared to make use of accidents and in this case he later felt that the artificiality of the sequences done in the studio actually enhanced the picture, giving those sequences a dream-like quality.
Of course the highlight of the movie is the spectacular fun-house set-piece at the end. Sadly much of this sequence was lost in the editing process, much to the disappointment of Welles. Enough remains to make it one of the greatest set-pieces in movie history.
Columbia’s Region 2 DVD release includes a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. It’s typical Bogdanovich - chatty, informative, enthusiastic and entertaining. He got to know Welles quite well in the latter part of the great director’s life. Possibly the most interesting thing he learnt was that Welles wasn’t deliberately trying to be stylistically eccentric. He simply shot scenes the way that felt right for him. It just happened that the way that felt right for Welles was nothing like the way most directors would have done things.
We don’t have The Lady from Shanghai in the form that Welles intended. He was particularly distressed by the unimaginative score which was imposed on the film, a score that was directly contrary to his intentions. But what we have is still a very great movie. Very highly recommended.