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 exquisite terror with his authentic radio broadcast of H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds; who dared incur the ire of omnipotent newspaper magnet, William Randolph Hearst by created one of cinema’s irrefutable masterworks – Citizen Kane (1941); to whom free reign was granted and then rather unceremoniously yanked by the executive brain trust at RKO (the studio 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 had been a dark and harrowing familial saga of incestuous and self-destructing love. There is no way of getting around it. The fallout from this devil-may-care enfant terrible of the American cinema 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 are mere flashes of the overpowering zeitgeist whose showmanship, for the most part, was restrained for the rest of his days. Over the next decade, Welles would try – mostly in vane – to recover his lost reputation as an auteur. 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 self-medicate 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 exert on his new bride, he was blissfully relieved when the marriage began to almost immediately deteriorate.
In later years, Welles would acknowledge his own responsibility in the demise of their 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 necessary moneys 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 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 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 even had 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 crumbling marriage was afoot. Apart from an outbreak of the flu, sidelining Hayworth at the start and halting production for nearly a month, the mood on set was amicable to downright jovial. But when the picture wrapped, Welles and Hayworth mutually agreed to a separation, followed by a speedy divorce.
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 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, Cohn elected to remove The Lady from Shanghai from the Welles’ autocratic control even before the picture was finished, hacking into the rough 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 directly into the climactic showdown inside a hall of mirrors.
So too was Welles extremely displeased with Heinz Roemheld’s underscoring of the picture; begrudgingly 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, incongruously 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 – a moment that never actually happens. To better inform the composer of his intentions, Welles had laid in his own tracks from Columbia’s stock library, suggesting if Roemheld followed these cues he could not go far 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 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 achieving 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), an elaborate cripple to skirt the fact 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 with his general disgust for the law; casting Erskine Sanford as a thoroughly befuddled and ineffectual judge, and Carl Frank as the highly manipulative and power-hungry D.A., Galloway.
Yet, it is Rita Hayworth’s Elsa ‘Rosalie’ Bannister that we remember best; an intoxicatingly 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 nobly come to her aid – not once, but twice; first in the park; then, much later, to rid her of a controlling spouse…or is it, to frame him for a double murder he never intends to 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 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 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 various plot points with clever bits of shock and surprise. There is also considerable comedy at play – idiotic reactions from the jury and court observers that turn the proceedings into a proverbial ‘three ring circus.’ Bannister learns of Michael’s affair with Elsa and plots to throw the case so 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 realizes 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. Now, 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 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 an eye for the macabre, The Lady from Shanghai remains an imperfect B-grade noir thriller at best. Technically, it is proficient film-making on a very high level, and such a shame the script does not quite live up to the flashier stylistic elements. If Citizen Kane unequivocally proved Welles a master craftsman in the 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 and elusive nightmarish quality that builds into the movie’s baffling 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.
Can we just get on our soapbox right now and sing our renewed praises for U.K. distributor, Indicator and its re-re-release of The Lady of Shanghai; at long last, given a comprehensive ‘must own’ release on Blu-ray. It only took four fractured North American releases to prove yet again that when it comes to respecting vintage classics, the more progressive efforts are still being achieved on the other side of the pond. Blessings to Indicator for this effort – region free, no less, and sporting not only the audio commentary from Peter Bogdanovich, but also his nearly 20 min. ‘discussion’ piece (a part of Sony’s original DVD release, but inexplicably jettisoned from all the NA Blu-ray releases). Better still, Indicator adds another 20 min. ‘appreciation’ from noted actor and Welles’ scholar, Simon Callow; plus a theatrical trailer with Joe Dante’s commentary, a gallery of 60 images and a limited edition essay by film critic, Samm Deighan. As for the transfer: its advertised as a 4K remaster (as was the U.S. Mill Creek release), only this time with a maxed out bitrate that appears to have enhanced not only the subtleties in darkness, but equally the film’s textures and grain. This is a stunner in 1080p. Point blank: The Lady from Shanghai has never looked better in hi-def and Indicator, thanks to Sony’s due diligence in association with The Film Foundation, ought to take another sincere bow for this one. Beautifully done. It sounds about as good as it looks too, thanks to a lossless DTS audio in glorious mono. Quality will out. We get a premium transfer and extras to envy – highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)