The Lady from Shanghai April 4, 2018
Ted de Corsia
1 Hr., 27 Mins.
So much about it is false. The gold of Rita Hayworth’s tresses. Orson Welles’s Irish affect. The dialogue, which is so stylized that you almost wait for a meta, fourth wall-breaking shot that showcases a screenwriter furiously typing in a dim flophouse. Everyone’s intentions; everyone’s morality. Purrs Hayworth unnaturally in the middle of a wanton game of verbal one-upmanship: “You need more than luck in Shanghai.” And she’s right: In this arcane cinematic world into which we’re thrust, every person, every setting, is essentially masked – nothing is what it seems.
Was it supposed to be this way? Were we supposed to leave the theater convinced that what we’d witnessed was a subversive and rather ingenious tale of a screwed seeking of the American dream? Considering the narrative leading up to the release of the film in question, 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai, we’re partial to believing the mastery taken in is fortuitous, accidental – the sort that has befallen other fucked-with masterstrokes like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
Not a moment of Lady’s making and eventual release wasn’t toyed with. At the time of its inception, it wasn’t particularly wanted by anybody. In the summer of 1946, the filmmaker Orson Welles was directing a Mike Todd-funded stage adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Columbia president Harry Cohn was in the midst of planning his latest mass-pleasing, would-be hits. (The studio had, after all, recently found one of its biggest successes with that February’s Gilda.) It wasn’t much thought about.
Then things changed. Todd backed out of the theatrical production; Welles, desperate, had to fund the show himself. But he inevitably ran out of money. This adaptation was particularly lavish, and so he decided the only way he’d be able to see his artistic dreams through was by virtually asking Cohn for a loan. If Cohn gave him the necessary $55,000 for 80, he would agree to make a movie for Columbia for no further fee. Having recently directed the financially successful The Stranger (1946) for RKO, Welles’s potential as a financially viable moviemaker was undoubted.
According to Welles, the material which would fuel the eventual movie, Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake (1938), was selected while the novel was in front of him while on the phone with Cohn. The pitch was successful and production began in the fall. There was no reason anyone should have expected things to sour: Hayworth, who was Welles’s wife and Columbia’s biggest star at the time, would serve as the female lead (attention was upped due to the haircut she received for the film); King’s novel was a financial success in previous years; and Welles’s track record was decent.
But then things did sour. Cohn hated the rough cut, which was characterized by quasi-vérité style, farcical humor, and a plethora of sequences made to not do much else besides showcase Welles’s stylistic prowess. So the studio mangled what the filmmaker had done. Reshoots entailed that there be more close-ups and more scenes shot on artificial sets. An hour was edited out; an elaborate climax, which was supposed to boast ahead-of-its-time editing and production design, was cut and today is considered lost.
When the film came out, it was billed a disaster. Critics sniffed at it – “This gentleman certainly has a strange way of marring his films with sloppiness,” Times critic Bosley Crowther mused – and audiences didn’t see it. It harmed Welles’s reputation, adding to the idea that he was a sort of out-of-control mad genius prone to going over budget and pissing studio heads off.
When watching Lady, it is obvious that it was almost hastily stitched together. The remnants of Welles’s original cut, which strives to emulate documentary-esque naturalism, are at odds with the more controlled studio look put forward by reshoots. Some moments emphasize realism, with particular attention to the ample on-location shooting, but others accentuate glitzy, Hollywoodified artifice – namely how it stresses Hayworth’s face and figure, and how some of its most memorable scenes take place in clearly constructed settings. (A romantic showdown in an aquarium; an indelible hall of mirrors-set conclusion.) The camerawork is particularly eccentric: It goes back and forth between the stilted, glowy presentation common during the era and a more feral cinematographic vision — the images look like the result of a harlequin gleefully running about with a camera mounted on their shoulder.
But disjointedness becomes Lady. It is about a young Irishman’s (Welles) becoming ensnared in a complicated murder plot and his getting seduced and almost destroyed by an ice maiden who shouldn’t be trusted (Hayworth). So the nightmarish atmosphere played up to adds to the notion that what we’re seeing is a fantastical, near-opposite depiction of the American dream so fetishized during the classic Hollywood era. Presumably, Welles’s sailor plans on living up to the expectations of the capitalist American dream: he intends to find financial success, grab the attention a lady who’ll grow to love him, probably have a couple kids. But in Lady, all this is loused by figures who initially appear willing to give him the tools necessarily to make these things attainable but turn out to be corrupted, born schemers. So maybe the movie’s a horror pic and not an especially masterful film noir. It imagines a macabre America where succeeding is impossible, where you’re doomed to fail from the moment you embark on your journey to the ever-ideal dream.
Whether this is what Welles intended will never really be known. So much of his filmography was lacerated by studios who wouldn’t let him run creatively free that we’ll never exactly holistically understand what his true identity – or intentions – as a filmmaker was. But in a strange twist, this interference would often result in unsettling masterstrokes that benefitted from disconnection, like The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Touch of Evil (1958). The Lady from Shanghai is among his most commanding, artistically fascinating products – even if it isn’t entirely his own. A