Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) A Film by Orson Welles

In its first twenty minutes, Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai has made quick work of establishing its main characters and their scenario: an Irish seaman, Michael O'Hara (Welles himself), becomes visibly infatuated by the angelic Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) after saving her from a mugging in Central Park and therefore agrees to work on her older husband's yacht on their trip to San Francisco. Mrs. Bannister has little interest in her schmucky husband, a balding lawyer with crutches, but stays with him due to some unspoken motive, likely money and prestige, whilst secretly building a romance with Michael. One of Mr. Bannister's business associates, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), arrives on the yacht and works a deal with Michael to sign a confession of the murder of Mr. Grisby so that he can disappear unscathed, claiming that O'Hara cannot be accused without visual confirmation of there being a corpse.

For some time, Welles does not slow down the narrative drive, frequently even appearing to have skipped over some necessary bits of information along the way. The characters are roughly sketched, with Elsa and O'Hara's relationship seeming to have missed a beat. Nonetheless, Welles infuses his performances with enough gusto to keep the story intriguing, providing a strong basis for the film's final act, which was undoubtedly given the most effort. The Lady from Shanghai is based somewhat arbitrarily on a novel by Sherwood King, and Welles used the film mainly as a way to profit for future endeavors. Although the pacing is quick, the film lumbers along, and Welles' apathy regarding the material is somewhat conspicuous. What did interest him was the story's rather convoluted finale, which he renders magnificently, so what comes before is carried only by character idiosyncrasies and stylistic flourishes (the long crane shot that follows the mugging and subsequent horse and buggy ride at the beginning). While Hayworth is positively radiant as the femme fatale, serviced greatly by Charles Lawton Jr.'s delicate blankets of light, the character of George Grisby is the finest example; he is a hulking enigma who chuckles at O'Hara via suffocating close-up and has an unorthodox way of dragging out consonants ("just tell 'em you're taking tarrrrget practice").

When O'Hara carries out his fake murder and Grisby speeds off on a boat across the pier, he becomes suspicious of Grisby's true intentions, and eventually finds himself being blamed for Grisby's unexpected death. Michael goes to court being defended by Mr. Bannister, himself angrily curious of O'Hara's relationship with his wife. In the film's mesmerizing funhouse mirror sequence, the double crosses of Elsa and Mr. Bannister are revealed to O'Hara in a stunning visual arrangement. It is as if the extent of secondary personalities that the characters harbored throughout the film are multiplied perpetually against the mirrored walls and Welles takes every opportunity to manifest this climactic meeting in a tricky manner; large faces superimpose over full, duplicated bodies, characters jigsaw along the fragmented frame, and bullets then shatter their images into full-fledged abstraction. It is one of the most experimental resolutions in a Hollywood narrative film and has lost none of its audacity. Unfortunately, studio executives became the downfall of many of Welles' films, and the finished Lady from Shanghai allegedly contained much more of this Wellesian brilliance before being hacked up for commercial purposes. What remains is short and clumsy but compelling.

1 comment:

Ed Howard said...

There's something I really love about this rough, ragged film, despite its badly compromised nature. It's a mess, and the narrative is clearly hacked to bits, with abrupt transitions and character motivations that often just plain don't make sense. And yet it's oddly compelling stuff, like a fractured noir dream, and it culminates in one of the best, most hallucinatory sequences the cinema has to offer.

Woody Allen created a great tribute to this film at the end of Manhattan Murder Mystery, too.