The Lady from Shanghai

Summer Under the Sun Blogathon

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

The directorial career of Orson Welles stands to this day as one of Hollywood’s legendary cautionary tales. Egotistical, arrogant, pretentious; talented, visionary, audacious – there were many sides to the man. Like his Shakespearean characters, Welles the artist had a number of fatal flaws, flaws that would eventually become insurmountable obstacles in his career in Hollywood. Firstly he was, stylistically, years ahead of his time; secondly, he appears to have been utterly incapable of playing the Hollywood game – placating nervous studio executives, retaining creative control of his films, winning the fights that inevitably accompany making films. However his most damning flaw of all was that, with his first film, he had the misfortune of producing his masterpiece, a work of such quality that for over sixty years it has regularly been proclaimed the greatest motion picture ever committed to celluloid. That film is, of course, Citizen Kane, made when Welles was just 25 years old.

With Citizen Kane, Welles took the risky decision of basing the film on the life of America’s most powerful media tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. Mr Hearst was, predictably, unimpressed. His media empire blacklisted the film, allowing no reviews, mentions or advertising – even a bad review is better than no review at all. The film was a financial failure and Welles would never again make a film where he had the freedom of complete artistic control and a comfortable budget.

In the years following Citizen Kane, Welles would find his vision at odds with that of the studio executives. Afraid of having another flop on their hands or disturbed by his unconventional style, time and again he would lose creative control of his films. Starting with The Magnificent Ambersons, his second feature, his films would be wrested from him and re-edited by unsympathetic hands with little notice taken of his artistic intentions. Citizen Kane excepted, Welles became the poster boy of the compromised vision.

When Welles came to make The Lady from Shanghai he had just completed The Stranger , a director-for-hire assignment that had produced a profit for the studio. Things were beginning to look brighter. While working on a stage production of Around the World in Eighty Days he found opening night fast approaching and funds drying up fast. He approached Harry Cohn, the notorious vulgarian head of Columbia Pictures with a proposal – if Cohn provided the necessary funding to open the stage production, Welles would write, direct and star in a film for Columbia without taking a fee for his work. The story goes that when Welles struck the deal with Cohn he announced that he would adapt a novel that he happened see a secretary reading but had never read himself. This story is, of course, likely apocryphal, indeed it seems that the studio already owned the rights to the book. Welles was a showman who maintained his grand public persona rather like a separate, mostly invented character and for a showman, the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

The Lady from Shanghai was the result of this deal and it is a problematic film. While it has moments of Wellesian brilliance and a number of strong performances, these often serve only to remind us of what could have been. These elements are tantalising glimpses of The director’s original unadulterated vision. The fact that Welles lost control of the film is at times painfully obvious. The editing is sometimes erratic and jarring, juxtaposing shots in sequences that do not flow, the apparent result of a significantly reduced running time: it is said that Welles’s original cut was around 150 minutes while the released print was less than 90 minutes.

The studio attempt to fill in the holes by keeping the pace of the story high and by introducing a narration by Welles. The narration is painfully bad, adding nothing to the proceedings. Often the narration is needed to explain the motivations of characters since the scenes that would make this clear have been removed. It is overly simplistic and used to explain the events of the screen rather than to comment on them or introduce the internal monologue of the character.

Of all the damage that the final cut did to Welles’ film, the biggest victim is in the fun house climax. As originally intended (and shot) this was a complicated sequence of some 20 minutes, utilising extensive stylish sets, disorienting visual tricks, creative use of shadow and light and all the creative power at his disposal. The sequence presented on screen lasts only a couple of minutes. It is erratically edited and undermines Sloane’s performance as well as his character’s motivation.

It is, perhaps a credit to Welles’s visual flair that, despite being a shadow of what it could have been, the climax remains visually audacious. The camera tricks are impressive and the use of multiple images of each actor remains unusual and highly effective even today. It does, however, seem rushed and is an ending that does little justice to any of the characters or their actors’ performances.

While there are problems aplenty with this film, there are some elements that do work. The performances all almost uniformly excellent. Welles himself takes on the lead role and acquits himself well. He plays with an Irish accent that takes a little getting used to but is well done. Welles is believable in this role but seems much more comfortable in less working class roles.

Opposite him plays his (then estranged) wife, Rita Hayworth. For this role, at Welles’s instigation, she cut her trademark red hair short and dyed it blonde. The hairstyle is fitting to her character – simultaneously pretty and harsh. It also emphasises that this is a new, much darker type of role for her.

Hayworth’s Elsa is, I suspect, the character most injured by the recutting of the film. She is set up as a femme fatale but we are permitted only the briefest of glimpses of this. Her character’s reveal in the climax does not ring true – it is too sudden. She would be a stronger character if we saw her manipulativeness at work. She has clearly been involved in planning the whole sordid plot and yet is shown as merely reacting to unfolding events.

Among the supporting cast, Glenn Anders puts in a bizarre and unsettling performance as the sweating, giggling manipulator, George. One of the few set piece scenes that completely works involves him and Welles plotting on the pier. His giggling creepiness reaches a disturbing crescendo in a scene shot in brilliant Wellesian shadow and unusual low angles.

Stealing the show, as the husband, is Everett Sloane. His performance is quite spectacular. His spidery gait as he slowly walks across the screen is mesmerising. He plays the weakened cripple but, like a femme fatale’s sexuality, this is a mask to disarm his opponents – he is strong-willed, intelligent, manipulative and cruel. His continually calling Hayworth ‘lover’ becomes increasingly disturbing, a veiled threat. Sloane is also responsible for much of the film’s humour, most notably in the courtroom scene. Here Welles crams in farcical comic touches that lead up to Sloane’s over-the-top but amusing self-cross-examination as both witness and lawyer.

In scenes like this and in the brilliant support casting, Welles’s talents come to the fore. The problem is that in this compromised version these are only glimpses that are lost in the confused mess that remains. Following the edit, the film feels long, even at under 90 minutes.

Welles losing control of the film was inevitable. He came up with a darkly confusing plot, took the studios greatest star, cut her trademark hair and cast her in her darkest role to date. He created a film of confusing moral ambiguity; a film where good and bad were not easily distinguishable. Of course they tried to change the film, make it more palatable. Of course it isn’t really possible to change the nature of a film after the fact. The resulting mess is a compromised vision that pained Welles. It was shelved for two years by the studio before being vomited onto the market. It didn’t make money and coincided with the release of his subsequent film, Macbeth – also a commercial disappointment. With two flops in row, Welles was Hollywood pariah all over again.

© Calum Campbell 2012