Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Director: Orson Welles                                   Writer: Orson Welles
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                           Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders

Oh, if only Orson Welles hadn’t decided to do this film with an Irish brogue, it could have been so great. Obviously he has a tremendous voice, and with the large amount of voice-over in the film it had the potential to be absolutely captivating. Instead, his mincing--and unconvincing--accent is a major detriment to the film. The screenplay, written by Welles, was based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, and filmed by Welles in 1946. But studio boss Harry Cohn took possession of the film and had it radically altered. Many of the scenes, especially the finale, were severely truncated and studio re-takes were used to replace location shots. Nevertheless, while diverging radically from Welles’ original vision, The Lady from Shanghai as it stands is striking. Not exactly a film noir, it nevertheless has many of the conventions of the genre: night scenes are in stark black and white, the plot with Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale, and the voice-over by Welles. The title comes from the fact that Hayworth’s character was raised in Shanghai and her ability to speak Chinese comes into play at the end of the film.

The film begins with Orson Welles wandering through Central Park and happening upon a carriage carrying Rita Hayworth as a blonde. He offers her a cigarette, and goes on his way, but when he sees her purse in the dirt a few minutes later, he rescues her from a trio of muggers and entertains her while driving the carriage to her garage. Welles is a sailor and she offers him a job on her yacht, but he refuses. The next day Everett Sloane hobbles in on canes. A famous defense attorney from San Francisco, he offers Welles the same job, as it turns out he’s Hayworth’s husband. When Welles delivers him back to his yacht, heading back to San Francisco, Hayworth begs him to take the job and, against his better judgment, he does. Of course Hayworth throws herself at him and, while he tries to resist, he can’t do that either. When Sloane’s law partner, Glenn Anders, meets them in the Caribbean and sees them together, the tension on the small boat begins to ratchet up. By the time they get to San Francisco Anders wants Welles to kill him, and offers him five thousand dollars to do it. The catch is, it’s not a real murder but a scam to collect the insurance money. With the money, however, Welles can make play for stealing Hayworth. But Sloane, it seems, has other plans.

As always, Welles’ heavily stylized visual style is present from the beginning. He’s fond of close ups, especially with other characters in the background, and a moving camera. His sensibilities lean toward the artificial, but he also uses a lot of location work with the boat scenes on the ocean, and in Acapulco. At the end of the picture is a bizarre scene on an Expressionistic set in a funhouse, and the series of mirrors idea would be used again at the end of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, among other films. One thing about his direction is unmistakable: his camera is in love with Hayworth. There are only a few other films I’ve ever seen where the camera caresses an actress so lovingly throughout the picture. Welles reportedly hated the picture as released. He was especially disgusted with the film score by Heinz Roemheld, which really doesn’t do much for the picture at all. Hayworth is striking as a blonde, though many fans were distressed that she had altered her look so drastically for her soon-to-be ex-husband Welles. The writer-director-actor is in fine form, though he isn’t really one of my favorites. Everett Sloane, who was so memorable in Citizen Kane, is really solid here, though the canes are a bit over the top. And finally, Glenn Anders is absolutely creepy as Sloane’s partner. The Lady from Shanghai is a decidedly strange film, especially the final act from the courtroom through the finale, but it definitely holds attention throughout.

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