Tuesday, January 28, 2014

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI: Blu-ray (Columbia 1947) TCM Collector's Choice Series

For me, Orson Welles’ career remains that of a vanishing shadow; a great talent snuffed out in its prime and relegated largely to B-grade performances in movies one can almost as easily forget as belonging to the canon of a supreme artist. Orson Welles, who shocked a disbelieving nation into abject fear with his authentic radio broadcast of H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds; who dared tempt the ire of omnipotent newspaper magnet, William Randolph Hearst by created one of the cinema’s undisputed masterworks – Citizen Kane (1941); to whom free reign was granted and then rather unceremoniously taken away by the executive brain trust at RKO (they undertook to eviscerate Welles’ other masterpiece – The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – re-editing, re-shooting and tacking on an utterly ridiculous ‘happily ever after’ to what began as a dower tale of incestuous and self-destructing love). There’s no way of getting around it. The fallout from this devil-may-care enfant terrible was as epic as it was painful to observe.
Still, Hollywood could not ignore, discount or dismiss Welles’ genius outright. And so the cannibalization of his acting talents began. Occasionally, Welles would resurface in a film of quality; 1943’s Jane Eyre and 1949’s The Third Man immediately come to mind. But these were mere flashes of the zeitgeist. Over the next decade, Welles would try – mostly in vane – to recover his lost reputation as an auteur of the American cinema. It never happened. Despite some plum opportunities in the 1950’s, Welles had become his own worst enemy; losing interest in projects half begun in earnest and turning to excessive food and drink to satisfy his moody temperament. In 1943, Welles married Columbia’s ultimate cover girl, Rita Hayworth – a decision that did not sit well with the studio’s autocratic president, Harry Cohn.  Still, if Cohn feared the influence Welles might have exerted on his new bride, he was blissfully relieved when the marriage began to almost immediately break apart.
In later years, Welles would acknowledge his own responsibilities in the demise of this sad union. But in 1947 he had more pressing concerns. His out of town tryouts for a stage spectacle of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days had stalled thanks to Welles’ complete lack of pre-planning and funds. In attempting to shore up his concerns elsewhere, Welles made an impassioned pitch for the money to save his project, and to the one man he neither despised nor feared: Harry Cohn who, in turn, demanded a picture from Welles as his compensation. Welles, who was standing next to a magazine rack at the time, turned to a copy of Sherwood King’s lurid thriller, If I Die Before I Wake, ordering Cohn to get coverage on the property and promising to make it into a movie. Initially, Cohn liked the idea, so much that he decided to cast Hayworth in the lead. Welles had hoped to shoot the newly rechristened The Lady from Shanghai (1947) with relative unknown, Barbara Lang. But Hayworth’s participation necessitated a bigger, glossier production than Welles was interested in making. Nevertheless, with his check for $55,000 already spent on costumes and props for the aforementioned failed venture, Welles dove headstrong into The Lady from Shanghai before he had even the opportunity to refine his screenplay.
Welles incurred Harry Cohn’s wrath yet again when he elected to bleach and lop off a goodly portion of Rita Hayworth’s trademarked auburn tresses. To Welles’ mind, the decision was made in service of the story; to present a new Rita to audiences. Hayworth did not buck this decision. In fact, she was even pleased with the results. For a brief moment it looked as though a possible reconciliation to their marriage was afoot.  Apart from an outbreak of the flu, which sidelined Hayworth at the start and halted production for nearly a month, the mood on the set was amicable to jovial. But when the picture wrapped so did their union.  
Viewed today, The Lady from Shanghai is yet another of Welles’ fractured masterpieces; exhibiting flashes of its creator’s magnificent genius, yet without ever achieving or sustaining the magic from beginning to end. The opening sequence where Hayworth’s mysterious femme fatale is kidnapped from her Central Park coach by a trio of twenty-something rape-happy hooligans plays with near lethal and supremely pedestrian mediocrity. Welles directed this sequence but would later acknowledge that even the thought of it made him cringe. The film’s ultimate thud at the box office in America led Welles to believe he had directed another half-baked artistic soufflé. Not until Truman Capote met him years later in Sicily did Welles realize how influential The Lady from Shanghai had been; its response elsewhere in the world overwhelmingly positive, despite mixed reviews.
In what had become an all too familiar pattern in Welles’ Hollywood career, Cohn elected to remove The Lady from Shanghai from the director’s autocratic control even before the picture was finished, hacking into Welles’ unofficial cut with all the decorum of a buzz saw cutting through a snow pea. Lost in this shuffle was an extended ‘fun house’ sequence. Surviving stills reveal a rather macabre set personally created by Welles with disembodied arms and legs dangling from the ceiling, and, a grotesque representation of Hayworth stripped down to skeletal remains. None of this survived the final edit; a formidable loss leading into the climactic showdown inside a hall of mirrors.
So too was Welles extremely displeased with Heinz Roemheld’s underscoring of the picture; referring to it as ‘Disney’. Indeed, when listening to the movie purely for its dramatic content one is dumbstruck by the heavy-handedness of Roemheld’s score; his central theme of ‘Please Don’t Kiss Me’ repeated over and over again at varying tempos, yet punctuating some of the most benign moments in the movie; as when Hayworth takes a casual dive off a rocky precipice into the ocean. Here, the music suddenly swells as though to suggest some imminent danger or, at least, to foreshadow a moment of suspense to follow, but one that never happens. To better inform the composer of his intentions, Welles had laid in his own tracks from Columbia’s stock library, suggesting that if Roemheld followed these cues he could not go wrong in capturing the essential flavor of the piece. Virtually all of Welles creative suggestions were ignored. When the movie premiered the general consensus was that it ‘cost a million/lost a million’ and was responsible for ending Welles’ directorial autonomy in Hollywood.
The reality is that The Lady of Shanghai cost about as much as a standard Columbia release from its time; just under $2 million. Removed from the hype of being a Welles’ picture, The Lady from Shanghai yields some extraordinary visual set pieces, many worked out in the editing room by second unit cinematographer, Rudolph Maté, who made the most of the exotic locales mostly shot by Charles Lawton Jr. The film is unusual too in that it represents something of Welles’ second to last great attempt at creating ‘serious art’ – something he arguably hadn’t considered since Citizen Kane and would make only one more stab at with Touch of Evil (1958). That this ‘lady’ fell short of audiences’ expectations seems to have more to do with what happened after Welles was unceremoniously deposed from the project, rather than any contribution – or lack thereof - he might have made to influence its’ negative outcome. Better still; removed from her emblematic sex goddess image, Rita Hayworth emerged as the undisputed madam of mystery and intrigue.
Reportedly, Welles made Everett Sloane, an alumni from his Mercury Player days and Citizen Kane, herein cast as the conniving attorney, Arthur Bannister, a deliberate cripple to skirt the fact that Sloane, while eloquent with his diction, was rather clumsy in his mannerisms and movements. Welles also hired Glenn Anders to play the suicidal George Grisby because he appreciated the way Anders laughed; a rather sinister chuckle and sneer all rolled into one. For his own part, Welles adopted an Irish accent most convincingly; the rather butch persona of his character, roguish grifter, ‘black’ Michael O’Hara, somewhat at odds with Welles’ cherub-esque physical features.  Welles also peppered the movie’s climactic trial sequence in his own general disgust for the law; casting Erskine Sanford as a thoroughly befuddled and ineffectual judge, and Carl Frank as a highly manipulative and power-hungry D.A., Galloway. But it’s still Rita Hayworth’s Elsa ‘Rosalie’ Bannister that we remember best; an intoxicating desperate, frightened child one moment/unscrupulous, plotting octopus the next.
When Hayworth flashes us a glance, or clutches at Welles’ in her dying embrace, whispering in his ear “You know nothing of wickedness,” she exudes a malignant sex appeal; corrosive to any man’s soul and thoroughly destructive to his safety and well-being.  Just who else could have been so impious as to lure this man with the proverbial heart of gold from his relatively devil-may-care lifestyle and into the midst of these self-professed sharks, playing the part of the innocent until her nefarious plan – to rid herself of a loveless marriage – could take hold?  It’s Elsa Bannister that feigns quiet fear to elicit Michael’s empathy. He come to her aid – not once, but twice; first to her rescue in the park; then, much later, to rid her of a controlling spouse…or is it, to frame him for a murder he did not commit? 
The Lady from Shanghai opens with that aforementioned tragically ill-conceived ‘cute meet’ in Central Park where passerby, Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) first sees the cool and sultry Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). It’s a flawed sequence, first for its utter lack of authenticity; the coach used is a Hansom cab made famous in England instead of the open back carriages readily seen in Central Park. There’s really no attempt to replicate either the foliage or fixtures of Central Park either; the whole sequence shot on a rather obvious back lot exterior. Even the choice of lamp posts is all wrong.
Elsa toys with Michael as all spider women do, tempting him with hints of her sordid past in Shanghai. He offers her a cigarette. She puts it in her beaded handbag before they part, the discarded purse discovered by Michael not long thereafter lying on the ground near some bushes. It seems three rather clean-cut ruffians have waylaid the coachman, forcing Michael to come to Elsa’s aid. In short order, he pummels this nefarious trio senseless before taking hold of the horse’s reigns to drive Elsa to a nearby parking garage where her car awaits. There, Michael once again flirts with Elsa, and sees George Grisby (Glenn Anders) and Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia); although, as yet both Michael and the audience are unaware of the significance of this introduction. In point of fact, both men have been sent to spy on Elsa by their boss/Elsa’s husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). 
Michael reveals to Elsa that he is a sailor newly arrived in port after learning she and Arthur have come from Shanghai to New York, passing through on their way back to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Despite his misgivings, for anyone with half a mind can see this lady is bad, Michael agrees to sign on as an able-bodied seaman and charter Bannister's yacht. Elsa’s maid, Bessie (Evelyn Ellis) attempts to forewarn Michael of danger; the yacht mooring briefly to take on Bannister’s partner – none other than George Grisby. Once again, with rather cool resolve, Elsa toys with Michael’s affections. He strikes her across the cheek and she reverts to the unsteadiness of a wounded child, once again arousing his sympathies and chivalry, and perhaps, other less honorable intensions. Not long thereafter the yacht moors in Mexico, the mood growing more ominous as Grisby suggests Michael help him fake his own death.
Grisby will pay Michael $5,000 to pretend to murder him. Without a body as proof Grisby assures Michael that he will never be convicted of the crime. Blindsided by his lust for Elsa, Michael decides he can use the money to take Elsa away from Arthur. It’s all perfect, or rather…the perfect setup. For on the eve of the crime Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia) confronts Grisby with his knowledge of the plot afoot and is shot by Grisby and left for dead. Unaware of the forces conspiring against him, Michael goes through with Grisby’s plan, seeing him off on a motorboat before firing Grisby’s gun into the air, thus drawing undue attention to himself from passersby on the docks. Broome, who is not yet dead, pleads for Elsa’s help, confiding in her that Grisby intends to murder Arthur. He is, of course, quite unaware that Elsa is, in fact, working with Grisby.  
The film never shows what comes next, but makes a sizable hint that Elsa has put a period to Broome after Michael hears him dying on the other end of an open phone line, confessing to Grisby’s setup.  But the biggest wrinkle is yet to come, as Michael rushes to forewarn Bannister of the assassination plot against him only to discover Grisby’s remains being carried out of Bannister’s office; the police already in possession of Michael’s signed confession.  Despite his protestations, Michael is booked for Grisby’s murder. However, at trial, Bannister acts as Michael's attorney, encouraging Michael that he can win the case but only if Michael pleads justifiable homicide.
The trial is a superb example of Welles narrative ability to tie up his various plot points with clever bits of shock and surprise. There’s also considerable comedy at play – reactions from the jury and observers turning the proceedings into the proverbial ‘three ring circus.’  Bannister learns of Michael’s affair with Elsa and plots to throw the case so that Michael will hang for a crime he did not commit. Realizing he cannot escape the death penalty, Michael fakes a suicide attempt by swallowing a handful of pills curiously left in plain sight. Hurried into the judge’s chambers while a doctor is summoned to save his life, Michael instead knocks out the guards assigned to watch over him before making his break into Chinatown.
Witnessing Michael’s escape through the window, Elsa pursues him into a downtown Kabuki theater where she reveals to Michael elements of the case that lead him to suspect her as being Grisby’s killer. Sure enough, Michael discovers the murder weapon tucked inside her purse. However, laced with the powerful narcotic he swallowed, Michael passes out and is taken away by some of Elsa’s Chinese friends before the police arrive, awakening inside an abandoned funhouse on a boardwalk pier out of season.  Michael begins to realize that Elsa and Grisby were in on a plot to murder Arthur and frame him for the crime. Broome’s discovery of their diabolical plan necessitated Grisby killing Broome, just as Elsa later panicked, murdering Grisby to keep her secret.
Michael stumbles blindly through the funhouse, arriving at a hall of mirrors where Arthur is waiting to shoot both he and Elsa dead. “Of course, killing you is killing me,” Arthur bitterly admits before taking dead aim. Elsa removes the pistol from her handbag and returns his fire, the ricocheting bullets symbolically shattering all of their false fronts before mortally wounding their true selves. Arthur is shot in the head, Michael in the arm, and Elsa lies mortally wounded on her stomach, surrounded by the splintered glass. Unable to bring himself to attend this diabolical vixen who was nearly the death of him, Michael strolls away from the funhouse, assuming the events that have transpired will surely exonerate him of any wrong doing.
While Welles imbues his visuals with a fascinating eye for the macabre, The Lady from Shanghai remains an imperfect B-grade noir thriller. Technically, it’s proficient film-making on a very high level, and such a shame that the script doesn’t quite live up to the flashier stylistic elements.  If Citizen Kane unequivocally proved Welles a master craftsman in this visual medium, then The Lady from Shanghai illustrates how unwieldy his creative fervor could become if his un-tethered cinematic imagination was allowed to run rampant. In point of fact, the triple-cross scenario is confusing to follow; Welles’ reckless indulgences in ‘evolving’ the project as he went along most certainly contributing to the movie’s occasionally incomprehensible narrative structure. But The Lady from Shanghai was also submarined by Harry Cohn; Welles’ 2 ½ hour rough assembly butchered in the re-editing process to a mere 90 minute distillation of what it had once been - or rather, promised to be. The film was also hastily dumped on the market as the second half of a double bill one full year after it was actually made. Put bluntly, The Lady from Shanghai didn’t have a chance. Smelling blood in the water, the critics went after the movie with hammer and tong, criticizing virtually every aspect without so much as a nod to its many virtues. The public, unimpressed – or perhaps even unaware of the movie’s soft release - stayed away in droves. When the books were finally added up The Lady from Shanghai barely made back $1.5 million; a commercial flop by most any calculation.
And yet, from a purely artistic perspective there is a great deal to admire. Even with all the lethal edits in place The Lady from Shanghai defies outright dismissal as an all-out failure. The cinematography, as example, is first rate, as are Jean Louis’ costumes and Sturges Carne and Stephen Goosson’s art direction. True – production value alone is not enough to guarantee a satisfactory entertainment. But Welles’ screenplay is not quite the overly complex and confusing quagmire the critics made it out to be; perhaps, suffering more from Viola Lawrence’s uninspired editorial inability to make sense of Welles’ rough cut in her re-editing process.
And what’s here works, if not ideally, then at least on a level well beyond base superficiality. We are entertained – if slightly confounded - by the turn of events that built into the movie’s baffling visual climax. So too is the cast memorable and given over to some very fine performances throughout. In the last analysis, The Lady from Shanghai emerges as an imperfect disappointment, though utterly tantalizing as an interrupted and oft’ misinterpreted footnote in the oeuvre of Orson Welles’ directorial career. Welles would have preferred it as his pièce de résistance. Frankly, so would have we.
The Lady from Shanghai gets a 4k hi-def release via Sony’s mastering in association with The Film Foundation, herein exclusively offered as part of TCM’s ‘collector’s choice series.’ I’m not sure what this means for future Blu-ray releases of vintage Columbia product via Twilight Time or Criterion, who used to hold the monopoly on such catalogue titles. Frankly, I’m not all that impressed with what’s here. Yes, the image is superior to its DVD counterpart; chiefly in the eradication of age-related artifacts throughout. But I don’t really see all that much improvement elsewhere. The overall Blu-ray image is slightly brighter than the DVD, but not to the detriment of preserving its black levels. Contrast is solid and the gray scale shows an excellent amount of fine detail and film grain. But this disc is rendered using inferior VC-1 encoding. It’s single-layered too and lacking a lossless audio soundtrack with optional subtitles. No excuse for this, in my opinion. Just sloppy mastering.   
TCM has advertised their ‘combo pack’ (we also get a DVD) as containing a commentary track by noir aficionado, Eddie Muller. Oops! Mistake: its’ the same commentary provided by Peter Bogdanovich from the 2000 DVD.  Extras are more plentiful this time around: scene/publicity stills, poster art/lobby cards, a text only biography on Orson Welles. But we lose the nearly 20 minute video piece featuring Bogdanovich waxing – if a tad too succinctly – about the film’s flawed production history. In its place we get a ½ hour audio podcast that I confess I haven’t listened to yet, an intro by TCM’s Robert Osborne running less than 2 minutes, and the movie’s original theatrical trailer.  Ho-hum. Given the lack of attention paid to the encoding, the absence of a Tru-HD audio, no isolated score (always welcomed on Twilight Time’s exclusive limited editions) and the absence of the Bogdanovich video piece; I have to say this Blu-ray was a rather underwhelming experience. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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