Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

By Eric Jessen 8/19/09

An Orson Welles film destined for failure, a box-office flop, cut to pieces (maybe rightfully so) and turned into a confounding mess, is no doubt destined for legend.
As the story goes, Orson Welles was once again in way over his head on a project. He was attempting to remake Around the World in Eighty Days adding an ironic twist. Of course he needed money, 50,000 dollars, so he made a deal with Columbia producer Harry Cohn: Cohn would lend him the money if Welles would write, direct and act in a film with Columbia star Rita Hayworth (Welles' wife at the time) for no further fee. When Cohn asked Welles what the film would be about, Welles, standing in a hotel lobby, glanced at the book stand and suggested the film be based on If I Die Before I Wake. Which he had never read.
The film was slapped together in less than a year but as with all Welles films, much time was needed for heavy editing. The result is The Lady from Shanghai: chaotic, perplexing, labyrinthine (Cohn famously offered 1000 dollars to anyone who could explain the plot), featuring bits of brilliance, bad dubbing, overlapping dialogue, strange camera angles, awkward gaps that are an indication of cut footage (all Orson Welles trademarks). It's the Welles mystique verbatim. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Butchered, untidy, confusing, whatever, The Lady from Shanghai is an absolute favorite.
Welles plays an Irish drifter, Michael O'Hara, who encounters the beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister, played surprisingly well by Hayworth. (Welles taunted and infuriated Columbia pictures by forcing Hayworth to cut and bleach her famous long auburn hair.) Michael saves Elsa from three attacking ruffians, so Elsa hires Michael to be her body guard. Elsa is enticing, seductive, seething with passion but also bitter over her marriage with handicapped lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael somehow finds himself entangled in conspiracies, winding up the fall guy for a murder. The story spirals out of control into a muddle of who done it? Say what? Then finally coming to the mesmerizing climax in the hall of mirrors. Aurthur Bannister points his gun at Elsa and says “Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of the both of us.”
After watching one of the botched Orson Welles films, I always ask myself, do I really want to see The Lady from Shanghai, or any of the others as Orson truly intended? Do I really want to see the so called “holly grail” of lost film, the original ending to The Magnificent Ambersons? I'll admit, my answer is always an emphatic Yes! But I think the “Ambersons” ending and what Welles truly intended for his other films are better left to the imagination. And there's no doubt in my mind that all the lost footage, crazy horror stories, bombed or unfinished projects have raised Welles' esteem as a director. We watch a Welles film, see bits of brilliance and imagine what could have been, lifting Touch of Evil, “Ambersons,” or Falstaff in our minds to “Kane” level.
The Lady from Shanghai - cut, mangled, thrown together in shambles - is yet another Welles gem.

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