The story goes that Orson Welles, needing $50,000, rang the head of Columbia Studios and offered to make a film for them from a paperback he had just plucked at random from a book stand near the phone booth. Is this tall tale true? And is the film any good? And are you ready for Rita Hayworth as a blonde? For answers to some of the questions follow me into the intoxicating fun house that is, The Lady from Shanghai.
I offer this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for all reviews, click here).
“When I start out to make a fool of myself there’s very little can stop me.”
Welles told the story of how he ‘happened’ to make this adaptation several times, but it is only true in part. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia, did lend him the money but the novel in question, Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake (which I reviewed here last week), had in fact been in discussion as a possible Welles project for some time as it seemed like a very likely vehicle for his then wife, Rita Hayworth, who was Columbia’s biggest star. The film that emerged didn’t please the bosses much, perceived as too tough to follow, too odd for mainstream audiences, not to mention the jarring removal of Hayworth’s signature long red locks for a blonde bob. And yet, at heart, it looked completely plausible on paper – in fact, if truth be told, it tells the same story as Hayworth’s biggest hit to that time, Gilda, from its exotic ‘south of the border’ setting (Rio replaced by Acapulco) to the main plot in which a femme fatale (Hayworth) is married to an older and shady character (Everett Sloane) who then falls for a man her own age (Welles), leading to a complex murder plot in which all is not what it seems.
The finished film follows the outline of King’s novel pretty faithfully, though all its major set-pieces, apart from the courtroom trial, are purely Welles’ creation. A young sailor ends up in the employ of crippled lawyer Arthur Bannister and falls in love with the man’s wife, Elsa. The lawyer’s partner, Grisby (a truly eccentric, ever-grinning performance by Glenn Anders), gets the sailor involved in a screwy scheme to fake his own death but ends up dead for real and the young man goes on trial for his life.
“Give my love to the sunrise”
The performances are very good, with Sloane having a great time as the tormented lawyer forever calling out “Loverrr …” to the unhappy Hayworth, who is ravishing of course and perhaps rather too solemn as the shady dame, though she does get to sing the OK novelty song, “Please Don’t Kiss Me”. Even Welles, in a soft and not that convincing Irish brogue, makes for a decent fall guy throughout. It is a shame that the editing is a bit choppy due to massive studio interference – but
much remains that is highly impressive none the less. The best bits are truly memorable: these include the extended sequences in Mexico (unusually shot on location, partly on Errol Flynn’s yacht); an eerie assignation in an aquarium; and the San Francisco Chinatown sequence, leading to the celebrated hall of mirrors finale in which the main characters shoot it out in an exceptional piece of imagery and choreography later ripped off in films as different as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon; Alec Baldwin’s The Shadow (which of course Welles used to voice when the character first appeared on radio in the 1930s); and Woody Allen’s marvellous whodunit pastiche, Manhattan Murder Mystery.
“Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us”
The plot does get very convoluted at times but does sort of make sense actually, though one has to remember that Cohn did re-edit the film after Welles delivered an early cut, doing pretty much what he did with Gilda, adding lots of small bits and closeups and excising sections to fasten the pace. These post-production efforts unfortunately make it actually less easy to follow (the truncated opening. section in New York has a very weird pace to it now) and sadly the huge chunks removed from the fun house climax are noticeable – but this is still a very entertaining mystery, with a highly satirical courtroom sequence that expands on an already strong part of the original novel and a fine gallery of character roles. When I recently had the opportunity to watch a new restoration of the film with a packed audience at the London Film Festival it got a standing ovation and was a highlight of the event. A rich and strange film, by turns bizarre, grotesque and expressionistic but also a very witty mystery with great location shooting in Acapulco and San Francisco and some fabulous set-pieces – do yourself a favour and rent this move, it’s a great ride.
DVD Availability: The film is easily available on DVD and now on a Bluray in the restored edition – the older audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich is well worth a listen
Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr (and Rudolph Maté)
Art Direction: Sturges Carne, Stephen Goosson, Orson Welles
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Gus Schilling, Erskine Sanford, Jessie Arnold