The Lady from Shanghai: A Diamond in the Rough
Lately, I’ve been on an Orson Welles binge. My father picked up the 2013 book “My Lunches for Orson” for a buck at a local Dollar Tree for me about two weeks ago. I read it in two days, then went back to Simon Callow’s series of biographies interspersed with viewings of old classic interviews with Welles, as well as pieces like Filming The Trial, Orson Welles Sketchbook, and Around the World with Orson Welles. I’ve owned a Blu-ray copy of The Lady from Shanghai for about a year now but hadn’t previously gotten around to watching the film noir classic and decided that now was as perfect a time as any to get better acquainted with the gem.
In 1946, Welles was in the rehearsal stage of his production of ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ One of the production’s largest financial backers pulled out of the project at the last minute and Welles needed $55,000 USD to pay for expenses. The situation was dire, so Welles used his charm and his powerful voice and called up Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, and asked him if he wouldn’t wire the him the money if he promised to work as screenwriter and director on a Cohn picture for free the following year (meaning he would take no fee). Cohn, surprisingly, agreed on the spot and wired the money. Then, when the time came, he sent Welles a hard-boiled novel titled ‘If I Die Before I Wake’ from the pulp writer Sherwood King. Welles then began to shape the book into a workable script with the help of William Castle, Charles Lederer, and Fletcher Markle.
Welles involvement extended to direction of the film (and the total artistic involvement on all elements of the production from cinematography and lighting to casting, set design, and costume design, and everything in between characteristic of Welles approach to film-making as a true auteur director), the narration, acting in a main role, and eventually even to a production credit. He assembled a great team around the production including the cineaste and auteur Rudolph Mate as cinematographer, whose own work as a director on more than 25 films from 1947-1963 included the film noir classic D.O.A.. His work as a cinematographer on more than 70 films from 1919-1947 includes work on classics of Danish cinema like Carl Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ and ‘Le Passion de Jean d’Arc’, Fritz Lang’s ‘Liliom’, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Foreign Correspondent’, Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not To Be’, and the classic film noir ‘Gilda.’ Mate’s impressive eye for unique compositions, an artistic and expressionistic bent, and mastery of film noir conventions like high-contrast, deep focus, and dutch angles would prove to make his collaboration with Orson Welles a match made in heaven.
The second immediately notable collaboration was with composer Heinz Roemheld whose work as a gun for hire in Hollywood produced film scores for upwards of a hundred films from 1929-1962. Many of his scores were for early American horror films like ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Invisible Man’ in the thirties: films that used introduced German expressionist stagings and mise-en-scenes to American cinema long before the advent of film noir. After this point in his career, he moved on to scoring mostly comedies and the occasional B-movie film noir, but The Lady from Shanghai would prove to be his greatest credit in the latter category.
Finally, the famous and lauded Viola Lawrence, the first female film editor in the Hollywood system, was- in a rather disgraceful turn in her career- the butcher (…er… editor I mean) of the film. Unlike Robert Wise, the editor on Orson Welles 1942 film ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, who attempted to cut the film in keeping with Welles’ vision and only made egregious cuts at the behest of the studio muscle, Lawrence actively told the producer on ‘The Lady from Shanghai’- Harry Cohn- that the film was a mess and needed extensive re-shoots and cuts. Never an artist in her own right and with a will to succeed in this very difficult business- made even more difficult for a woman by the labor politics of a the American workforce of the time- she internalized the mindset of Studio execs and producers and made an utter mess of the film (and potentially dozens of other films in her career). The film’s final version came in at 88 minutes after over 100 minutes of footage were cut from the director’s cut. She was thorough too. None of the material cut from the film has ever been found and was thereby, most likely destroyed.
As the film opens on Michael O’Hara (Welles) playing a seaman at ease in New York City before projecting re-docking the following day, he sees the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) pass by in a horse-drawn carriage. Welles narration tells us that he became immediately enamored with the woman and followed her, making small talk and exchanging fast-paced witty banter ala film noir convention all along the way. Later, he finds her in a clearing in Central Park where she is being accosted by a group of men attempting to steal her purse. The strapping young O’Hara bumbles into the mess raising high heaven with his ponderous Irish brogue. The narration informs us that the event is staged, that O’Hara is being set up by the femme fatale and her goons to lose the fight, and his own money in the process. But the surreptitious scheme is foiled as O’Hara proves himself to be a real brawler who dispenses with all three men. This through-line of this interaction- that Elsa isn’t what she initially seems- will later be tied up as the story advances, but the particularity of this scheme is never revisited and I find it hard to believe that Welles hadn’t filmed scenes relevant to this sequence that were later cut by the studio and his editor.
As the plot progresses, we learn that Elsa has lived hard and has lived all over the world, from Paris to Shanghai and Macao. This nomadic lifestyle, as well as the particular reference to life in China, was also experienced by Welles who tended to introduce elements of auto-biography into all of his films. Later, we learn that Elsa has connections to Chinese theater, which draws the parallel between Welles and her character even closer as Welles was a theater man himself, known initially for his work in this medium, and specifically his early work abroad in the Gate Theatre of Dublin, Ireland. O’Hara and Elsa exchange more information about there pasts and we learn that O’Hara has worked in all kinds of criminal environments, but also fought the fascists in the war and killed men, both during and outside of wartime. The discussion of crime and of sexuality throughout the film is pretty frank, which is in keeping with film noir and pulp conventions of the time, but stands out as more hard-boiled and grim than most of its contemporaries.
Elsa wants to begin a romantic relationship with O’Hara, but is married one Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). O’Hara does his best to steer clear of her and the drama she attempts to inject into his life, but eventually takes a job as a seaman aboard her husband’s yacht once being pressured by both Elsa and Arthur, though for obviously different reasons. Arthur thinks him to be just the sort of strong young man needed for the work. Aboard the ship, Bannister’s business partner George Grisby begins to court O’Hara into his criminal scheme to confess to killing him without actually going through with it. This will allow Grisby to leave public life and live anonymously. At least this is what he states at the time. The plan is to make O’Hara the fall guy when Grisby will later attempt to kill his partner Bannister and collect on their business’ life insurance policy. All this with the help and implicit acknowledgement of Elsa.
But the yacht’s cook is a man named Sydney Broome. A PI hired by Bannister to watch his partner Grisby. The plan is foiled, but deaths still occur and O’Hara finds himself as the fall guy, goes through a court proceeding ironically with Bannister as his defense attorney, manages to escape by causing mayhem in the courthouse, and lands himself in a Chines opera house in the city’s China Town district. Elsa, who has connections there, spirits O’Hara away to an abandoned amusement park owned by the Chinese establishment in the city. There, a twenty minute phantasmagorical scene of whimsical and fast-paced editing as O’Hara traverses the rooms of the funhouse was shot. But thanks to Viola, the scene was cut down to three minutes, the film loses what surely would have been an arthouse scope, and becomes merely an odd B-movie film noir in the process. And of course, the scenes have never been recovered.
Despite all of its problems, the film in its current form is still a diamond in the rough that showcases the interests, both thematically and artistically, of America’s greatest director of all time. And though I find it difficult to recommend the film over against more complete representations of the artist’s oeuvre like Citizen Kane, the restored Touch of Evil, and the Criterion restored Mr. Arkadin, its still worth a watch. Especially if, like me, you’ve seen these other works and find yourself craving more film experiences from perhaps the cinema’s greatest illusionist.
[Check out my review of another Orson Welles film: Journey Into Fear]