The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)
The hallmark of film noir, as well as the great flaw of film noir, is its sense of inevitability. There’s a case to be made that the lead characters in all of these gritty yet beautiful movies are finding themselves falling into a nightmare wrought by genre tropes — in other words, every noir tells a version of the same story that cannot be circumvented or stopped once it gets rolling, like the brick Ignatz throws at Krazy Kat and the interpersonal tumult in its wake. When done well, it’s ballet; when done poorly, it’s rote and familiar. When it occasionally is absolutely singular, it’s thanks to the likes of Orson Welles, whose toying with the format (which didn’t yet have a name) in The Lady from Shanghai is in some ways a submission to it, in others a subversion of it.
The film, Welles’ fourth proper feature as director (third as writer-director), is certainly something to show to those who believe MTV is wholly responsible for the reduction of U.S. attention spans: this is sensory overload. A bizarre, creepy thriller made as payback to Columbia after Harry Cohn did Welles a personal favor, it’s too fast and furious to allow us to really soak in any character connection, exposition, development. It never, ever stops to breathe. While Welles was known for his frenetic pacing, this was — in his view, and as with Touch of Evil a decade later — a bridge too far, the studio having liberally cut much of the atmosphere and development within the narrative, removing by some accounts a full hour and leaving only the skeleton of a narrative, and this after Welles had already been contractually forced into studio-based reshoots for a film he wanted to make (and originally had made) entirely on location.
Still, while the film is confusing at first blush, it lingers strongly; the phenomenon of film noir being intensely quotable far out of context, with dialogue that reaches odd profundity when removed from its busy and faintly loony context, is hardly unique to Welles’ work, as witness either John Huston or Howard Hawks’ contributions to noir culture. Familiarity with the raw truth of the situation in which Welles’ drifting sailor Michael O’Hara finds himself — smitten then framed like so many other noir protagonists — lends the film an additional poignance on repeat viewings. O’Hara saves the life of a kept woman, Elsa, portrayed by Welles’ then-wife and internationally celebrated pinup model Rita Hayworth, then is somehow talked into being taken in and working for her and her psychotic husband (Everett Sloane, never before or again so sinister) during a long boat ride (a prediction of Polanski’s Knife in the Water).
The film opens brilliantly. “Some people can smell danger,” Welles notes in resigned voiceover and slightly ridiculous Irish accent. “Not me.” He’s an antihero, a welcome human connection in a movie wherein the breathtaking elements are nearly all technical: the overlapping dialogue, the three-dimensional and wildly unpredictable camera movements, the presentation of menace through closeup. But we move from the first scene too quickly, and that’s a trend that’s unfortunately consistent thanks to Columbia’s tampering. The film presses on in breakneck mode but its connective narrative thread keeps running almost exclusively by implication, which might be pleasing if Welles had been the one in control of the editing; it ends up feeling like disconnected vignettes that tell the story competently but leave too many gaps and cannot allow for the kind of riveting fascination with which one approached Citizen Kane. This fosters an audience disconnection, with in turn prevents it from being fully the effective thriller it might have been. It’s not Welles’ fault; it seldom was.
Nevertheless, almost every scene in the picture is magical in some way (one in which Hayworth sings while flat on her back on the sailboat, voice dubbed, is phenomenally tasteless and enrapturing, the creeping terror of the sweltering night air almost palpable), but the scattered pieces of real character depth (“you don’t know anything about the world,” “feel the lust, smell the death,” “there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived”) are intriguing suggestions, “quirks” you might say, rather than evidence that we are watching real people whose lives are in the downward spin O’Hara quickly diagnoses. It’s a most serious problem in the Hayworth character, who never comes off as anything but an artifact, underlined by an early male-female banter scene that rips off To Have and Have Not and seems as beholden to gimmickry as to any narrative purpose or realism. We can sense enough to know the irony when she is referred to as a “poor child” early on, and she has more than one great line, but that isn’t enough to justify the thinness of her characterization. Welles’ own character isn’t much less of a cipher, but because he’s positioned as an audience vessel it’s more forgivable, although we never feel his lust for Hayworth as we should (we’re told about it more than we’re shown it), surely another consequence of the drastic cuts.
By contrast, Welles’ pair of villains are an improvement, and completely unforgettable. They seem to think everything that happens is absolutely hysterical, but they are honestly menacing and unique, Sloan backed up by the maniacal Glenn Anders as lawyer, conspiracy theorist, snoop and all around weirdo George Grisby. The two men (both attorneys) are decadent drunken sociopaths with their own separate shady agendas, and Welles intends us to be as disoriented by their enigmatically slimy nature as his lead character is, and it works, manifesting almost a physical recoiling at the sight of either of them.
The last act is masterful cinema, generating near-constant awe at Welles’ directorial brilliance — not just visually but as a writer and designer of dialogue, a blocker of scenes, an architect of dramatic irony — but it also brings the problems of The Lady from Shanghai into focus. It consists of outstanding, indeed nearly overwhelming scenes: a stunning aquarium sequence recalling Sabotage and anticipating Manhattan, a beautifully edited and chaotic courtroom sequence, and most memorably, a climax in a carnival and a Hall of Mirrors that’s among the most striking moments in any Hollywood film, full of startling images suggestive of avant garde and ingeniously reflecting O’Hara’s own state of confusion, handily upstaging Salvador Dali’s Spellbound dream sequence in the process. Welles also delivers a terrific ending that sets the table for The Third Man: He won’t get fooled again. Again, though, the caveat is that the relationship between these individual scenes is nearly inscrutable, even if one has seen the film enough to basically follow the plot — which, after one is accustomed to the film’s offbeat pacing, is quite compelling in its portrait of a crumbling marriage and of murder and intrigue among the idle rich — with the evolution of each character missing too many pieces.
Still, you can cope with this either consciously or unconsciously; perhaps the inexplicable is a part of this film’s magnetism and appeal, rendering its mysteries even more profound than in the status quo “classic” film noir, enhancing its nightmare-like nature. If the pieces don’t fit, maybe it’s because they shouldn’t, and this is borne out by the fact that the fragments still warrant a new or seasoned viewer’s full-on bewitchment. As with RKO’s butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons, the diminishing of all this to 87 minutes by outside forces does little to dilute its obvious artistic mastery of the form. And if you want to be harsh and accuse it of being a Tarantino-like “exercise in style,” you miss something important about the difference between Welles and other filmmakers. If every film noir is somehow a study of how disparate situations fall into similar bleak patterns, then a similar argument might hold that Welles’ own films all depict the inevitability of his characters’ slide into the particular insanity wrought by his own talents. Welles can take on the most ordinary or half-formed story in the world and still find ways to make it probing, intelligent and innovative — and if he is just flexing his muscles as a stylist, that doesn’t make it any less a personal expression of his own internal interests and preoccupations, which makes his work all but unique in Hollywood studio filmmaking. You can’t cut enough out of The Lady from Shanghai to keep it from feeling like the uncompromised work of a true maverick, and that’s astonishing.
[Expanded from a review first posted in 2006.]