Welles, In Order #4 – The Lady from Shanghai
First off, I apologize for the lateness of this entry — aside from a busy summer, Windows has seen fit to randomly install updates and further randomly restart at its own perverse whim, something that apparently overrides WordPress’s otherwise iron-clad draft-saving feature. So several-thousand words were lost, harsh words were directed at Microsoft, and keyboards were banged with all the fury of a cigar-starved filthy monkey. In other words, sorry for the delay.
The Lady from Shanghai was the third or fourth Welles movie I saw. The first was Kane, the second, Touch of Evil, the third either Shanghai or Chimes at Midnight, or Magnificent Ambersons. It was my third year of college when I was studying abroad and watching episodes of Family Guy on my laptop when I wasn’t working on some expansive paper detailing colonial trade relations (and, as far as I know, I’m the person who introducedFamily Guy to England — somewhat of a dubious distinction now). Anyway, I wanted some other movies to watch, found a copy of Shanghai, and, well, watched it.
I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and now about ten years later, I’m still not sure I’ve figured the whole thing out, And I’m not alone — neither the studio heads nor the audience knew what to make of it when it was released in 1948, about a year after production ended (and confusion of the formers is largely why it was held over). The major difficulty everyone seemed to have with the film was the plot, which even Welles aficionado Peter Bogdanovich describes as hopelessly confusing. That may seem a strange criticism to us now, since Lady is generally regarded as noir, and we tend to accept convoluted plots as the standard, but that wasn’t necessarily the case when people were making noirs. And it certainly wasn’t the case for Harry Cohn, Welles’ producer, whose attempt to make sense of the film ended up making it only stranger — the characters are shot and lit differently (and three of the four main players are affecting bizarre accents); the score is at odds with the what’s actually happening on screen; and the love story, for as integral as it is the the overall plot, is all of about three scenes.
At the time of production, 1946, Welles was on Broadway with Around the World in 80 Days. He’d just lost his financial backer and needed $50,000 to release the costumes. So he phoned up Harry Cohn with the pitch that if Cohn gave him the money, he’d direct a picture for no additional fee. Though Welles, being Welles, didn’t actually have a project in mind so, as the story goes, he glanced at the book the ticket gal for the theatre was reading, a trashy pulp novel called If I Die Before I Wake, and figured it was as good a project as any. Welles didn’t like the title, and before deciding on The Lady from Shanghai, the other names considered were Black Irish, in reference to Welles’ character, and Take This Woman, which wasn’t chosen ostensibly because of its association with the bomb I Take This Woman .(As a side note, the rights to the book were already owned by William Castle, the guy who’d pay actors to dress up as monsters and frolic in the audience during his films — and this may be the only time he and Welles are mentioned in the same sentence.)
The original cut of the film ran to about 155 minutes, and Cohn ordered editor Viola Lawrence to trim it down to 87, the Chinese opera and Funhouse sequences being the most substantial footage lost, as well as a lengthy, sustained dolly shot of the opening carriage scene. In addition to that, Cohn ordered more close-ups of Hayworth (something Welles had deliberately avoided) and ignored Welles’ rough Latino-inspired soundtrack, instead using a score composed by Heinz Roemheld. Above all else, Welles hated the score, complaining it was simply a variation of the title song “Please Don’t Kiss Me.” Bogdanovich relates one of Welles’ biggest gripes with the music being in the scene where Elsa dives into the ocean. There’s a swell when she’s first spotted and a climax when she leaps, which so went against the tone Welles wanted that he described it in a memo to the studio as written “for some antic moment in a Silly Symphony, a pratfall by Pluto the Pup, or a wild jump into space by Donald Duck.”
And, of course, there was the pairing of Hayworth and Welles. In 1946 the two had been separated for a few years but not officially divorced. And there’s about as many different stories surrounding the reason for Hayworth’s casting as there are tales about how Welles stumbled on the source material. Most of them agree that the part was not originally intended for Hayworth; instead Welles wanted to cast a lesser-known (much lesser known) actress named Barbara Laage for the role of Elsa, but the studio insisted on Hayworth, their biggest star at the time. Most sources, including Welles via Bogdanovich, say that the choice wasn’t Welles’, and, again through Bogdanovich, Welles felt the idea was Rita’s, possibly hoping to salvage the marriage. On the other hand, Turner Classic Movies, in their helpful notes (and Rob Nixon’s essay on the film), give more credit to Cohn, speculating that he wanted her to star in as many pictures as she could before her contract expired, and/or he figured pairing the real-life couple on screen would draw crowds. Not that any of these are mutually exclusive, but wading through all the accounts is far more confusing than the story of the film itself, and I want you to appreciate all the
cursory hard work I’ve done. Some of it may be interesting.
Whatever the true story of its production may be, the point is that The Lady from Shanghai is a weird film. Partly because Welles wanted it to be weird, partly because the production demands made it weird, and mostly because it all somehow works. Its box-office performance was another failure, but like many of Welles’ films, it had its admirers, and time has given it a more favorable evaluation. I think the reason is because, regardless of how erratic the story may be (and as jarring as the “jump-close-ups” and music may be), Lady maintains a consistent tone of mystery and intrigue all throughout and always looks good. I’ve now seen the film five times, and this is the first time I’ve seen it and followed the story — and I’m now convinced that that’s not at all how it should be viewed. Unlike The Stranger, which is written as a standard thriller and stumbles over itself racing to each beat, Lady is enjoyable without any sense of the plot whatsoever.
For those keeping track, the story is actually fairly straight-forward — guy falls for gal, discovers she’s married to successful attorney, agrees to sail with gal and husband to San Francisco, meets up with husband’s law partner, law partner wants to commit insurance false by pretending to kill himself and offers guy $5,000 to confess to the crime,things get wobbly, law partner ends up dead, guy takes the fall, husband acts as the defense and intentionally throws the case, guy escapes the courtroom to a funhouse, meets up with gal and her husband, the latter two kill each other, guy walks away. The end.
Even that summary isn’t necessary. Each scene has its own logic and mini story to tell — they’re not as tightly capsuled as they are in Ambersons, but then Welles is telling a mystery, not a moral tale — and his aim here is to present everything as a distraction (something that’ll come up later with F for Fake). Again, reshoots and soundtrack aside, Welles is misdirecting you in nearly every frame: His camera is hardly ever at eye level, swooping in from strange heights or sneaking up from the ground, using deep focus to divide your attention, and cluttered shots to keep the eye busy. In the above still, for example, there’s so many people squeezed into the frame, which in turn is centered on Sloane, that you can easily miss Welles tightening his
noose tie — the one image that shouts out the whole point of the scene.
And the affectations. Lady is overflowing with affectations, and affectations within those affectations. Welles is pulling a weird Irish accent throughout the whole flick; Glenn Anders gives a performance that’s so strange you wouldn’t be surprised if he whipped off a mask and was sent back to Xenu by Rod Serling; Rita Hayworth isn’t even a redhead — and is shot differently than the other actors. And speaking of Anders and accents, he and Sloane seem to have their own bizarre trigger words, whose significance and real meaning are never quite explained. I can get the irony behind Sloane’s cawing of, “Lover!” but I have to think that there’s some buried history in Anders’ “Taaarrrget Practice,” because no one, not even a San Francisco attorney, would be so transparent in their utterances.
And these exotic creatures are thrown at you mere minutes into the film. We meet Elsa and her husband, in two sequences that play as counterpoints to each other. Elsa appears in a benign setting and finds trouble; Bannister appears in a rough setting and doesn’t. O’Hara’s eager to meet Elsa and tries like Hell to avoid Bannister — and in both instances, he ends up saving them, Elsa from some thugs, bannister from his self-induced drunken stupor. And we’ve barely meet these two when Grisby shows up. Grisby is Bannister’s law partner, and if the parallels between the introductions of Bannister and Elsa indicate that they’re two sides of the same coin, the introduction of George draws parallels to O’Hara. Both appear, seemingly out of nowhere, both making eyes for Elsa, both dripping with the nervous sweat of a patsy — especially Grisby, who’s perspiring in every shot.
In fact, you can divide the four into two categories — the Schemers and the Patsies, and figuring out who is which is one of the major distractions. Early on, it’s pretty clear that Bannister is just itching to get up to something, and O’Hara is just as itching to take the fall for it. But that’d be too easy, so the focus shifts to George, Now George certainly has the look of a patsy, all sweaty and whatnot, and even though he’s Bannister’s law partner, he looks more like an aging clerk. He doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as wealthy as Bannister; Bannister lounges on his extravagant yacht (which he borrowed from Errol Flynn) and George has a seedy dinghy. Bannister’s hair is neatly curled and trimmed; Grisby’s oozes down his forehead. And even the name Grisby doesn’t have a legal ring to it — whereas Bannister is so close to “Barrister” that I’ve accidentally typed it that about 20 times already. If there’s anything the two have in common, it’s that they both drink way too much.
But Grisby, as soon as he can, reveals himself as a schemer, and in the process, cements O’Hara as the patsy. This reshuffles the deck, leaving at least one patsy and possibly one schemer to be claimed. Now it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, but if you’re going to make a mystery/thriller it’s a good bet that there’s going to be more victims than assailants. And it’s a standard trope of mysteries that almost every apparent schemer ends up a patsy.
Which brings up the title. Now the movie’s called “The Lady from Shanghai,” and early on we learn (if we didn’t already know) that the lady of the title is Elsa. And maybe it’s because we expect films like these to have femme fatales, but with a title like that, isn’t it kind of obvious whom the culprit is — isn’t Bannister naming his yacht “Circe” a big hint? And so far Elsa hasn’t had any significant role in the story outside of being the thing every man except her husband drools over like a filthy baboon. Of course including Elsa in every scene and then downplaying her role is the biggest distraction in the film.
So we meet these three wealthy, professional people, and immediately they begin squabbling with each other. I don’t know if Welles is making a statement, but if Bannister and Grisby represent the upper classes of society — certainly they’re the only people in this film who do — this is a pretty damning portrayal. O’Hara’s speech about the sharks eating each other is a famous speech in the film, but I don’t think it’s quite accurate. Sharks bite for a lot of reasons — they’ll bite to see if something’s edible or inedible and they’ll also bite each other to mate. I doubt Welles was aware of this bit of shark behavior, but it is a better fit. Elsa, I think it’s pretty clear, is a trophy wife, but since Arthur is paralyzed from the waist down, it’s a safe bet that they haven’t had sex in a long time. So instead of sex, they trade waspish nips at each other — and while they may dislike each other –and they may get some sexual release from it — they won’t dirty their own hands. The real victims, the smaller fish for the sharks, are the people below their social class — people like O’Hara and the poor residents of Acapulco, who exist to serve them or, in the extreme we’ll see, get gnashed in their loooooover’s games. (Behind the scenes, Sloane’s crutches were an invention of Welles’ to give his actor something to do with his hands — Sloane, for all his talents, was used to performing on the radio and had little experience with physical performing)
The least refined and most transparent of the three is Grisby, and, like a lion, he singles out O’Hara from the herd, and leads him up a winding path to the top of a cliff. Sensing O’Hara’s weakness, Grisby offers him a lot of cash for a seemingly small effort and lays out his scheme.
This is quite possibly the strangest shot in a very strange movie. And it’s Anders at his strangest, too, going from sneaky to nervous to some other emotion that doesn’t occur on our plane of existence. And it’s made even stranger by the setting. If Anders were delivering his speech on a cheesy set with cardboard backdrops and inflatable rocks, the accented or the bizarre would appear slightly more normal. But since it is Acapulco, and it is a cliff, and the rocks and water and sweat are real, and since the camera is at such an odd angle, it’s eerily surreal.
Similarly, this is also a good scene to show what Welles hated about the soundtrack (and a good example of unintended weirdness). So Grisby gives his speech, O’Hara is dumbstruck, and Grisby walks off. Right before he disappears from the frame, he says, “So long, fella!” and then drops from sight. The second that line is uttered, the brass blasts a single note to indicate the new plot development. And every damn time George walks away and the band strikes that note, I think he’s just jumped off the cliff and killed himself. And I’m always surprised to see him alive later on.
Back in San Francisco, Grisby finalizes his plan by giving O’Hara a confession note, bloodying him up, and staging the murder in a public place. Welles chooses a marina, which lets him use a favorite visual metaphor — fences and gates as prison bars. But Welles adds another level with a crane shot that gradually zooms out as O’Hara wanders down the boardwalk and people spill out from the bars — the prison now becomes a maze, with O’Hara hopelessly lost in the center.
And as we’ll soon discover, along with O’Hara, Grisby actually has been murdered. The repeated line, “Taaaarget practice” with its snide delivery, screams “Double-Cross!” and is another sleight of hand to present Grisby as a schemer when the twist is, naturally, that he was a patsy all along. The candidates for the real mastermind are disappearing quickly, and in yet another distraction, all signs, for now, indicate that its Bannister who’s the real mastermind. Or at least O’Hara seems to think so, and for asylum he retreats to Elsa.
I can suspend a lot of disbelief for Lady, but the one thing I can’t get around is how forced the romance between O’Hara and Elsa is. And it’s not a lack of chemistry between the leads, though that’s not very strong either, it’s that they have so few scenes together. We spend so much time with O’Hara being set up as Grisby’s murderer that the love story is is almost excised. Whether or not it’s Welles’ fault, when they meet at the aquarium and profess their mutual love, I don’t buy it. Up until now the most interaction the two have had was when one compared the other to a godless, soulless, prehistoric, cannibalistic eating machine, which is not a pick-up line that’ll make the Shanghai gals swoon.
Granted the whole point is that Elsa isn’t in love with O’Hara, that she’s just using him like she’s using George and her husband and everyone else she can. Like a good improviser, Elsa’s always saying, “Yes” to keep the skit going, “Yes, I love you,” “Yes, I’ll do anything for you,” “Yes, we’ll run away with each other.” But then there’s O’Hara, and what strikes him about Elsa isn’t really clear — not even he knows it — which again may be the point, but it’s hard to sell Orson “Boy Genius” Welles as this lovestruck palooka, especially when the screenplay gives no reason other than blind love.
Still, the aquarium is another scene that mostly works despite itself. Welles darkens Hayworth’s features almost to the point of shooting her silhouette. And I love, in the shot above, how her eye is a single white bead, looking almost demonic. The fish, of course, were enlarged and call back to O’Hara’s Shark Speech, and the quick beat of humor with the schoolkids catching the embrace will take a darker turn later.
O’Hara eventually gets captured and is brought to trial. Bannister insists on representing his former employee and semi-rival, and we pull away from O’Hara to have one of the few moments just between Bannister and his wife. Let’s try not to notice the incredibly phallic-looking shadow and instead focus on Hayworth cold, dead, doll’s eyes. Instead, let’s give credit to someone for noticing that Grisby’s scheme made absolutely no sense — outside of the Monkey Island series, you can’t collect your own life insurance, so either Grisby was much dumber than we thought, which is very likely, or we only know part of his scheme, which is slightly less likely but still plausible.
In any event, this little exchange between Arthur and Elsa gets across some exposition while simultaneously, yes, distracting you from the real story. Like the disturbingly ball-resembling shadows of the bench, there’s a lot more shadiness in the background. And we’ll again switch the focus from Elsa to Bannister, who’s ready for his big day in court. (In fact, you could divide the screenplay into four acts based on their focus — O’Hara, Grisby, Bannister, and Elsa).
Courtrooms tend to be dangerous for screenplays. In a lot of films, if they’re not legal thrillers or if there hasn’t been much of a setup to excuse them, they can come off as desperate efforts. It’s unexpected here, but not completely out of the blue — Bannister and Grisby are lawyers; Grisby’s already prepped O’Hara on the legal proceedings if the plan goes through; and by now we should be used to the sleight-of-hand scene changing.
Still, the courtroom plays like an extended rant. Welles didn’t have much respect for the American court system and had been looking for an opportunity to satirize it. And satirize he does. I have a soft spot for the unromanticized courtroom movie/sequence (Anatomy of a Murder being the best of them, and, of course, the best movie ever), and what i like most about this one is the deft balance of humor. There’s the corny joke with Asian woman who’s speaking Asian to her friend and ends with, “You ain’t kiddin’!” There’s Bannister’s joke about being “a member of the bar” that’s cheap because it’s meant to be cheap (when actually, given his drinking habits all throughout the film, it isn’t too far off). And there’s the more subtle gag of one of two jury members’ reactions to Bannister’s joke — one of the male jurors laughs then whispers to the gal on his right who looks back at him like he’s an idiot. The biggest joke, however, is the general apathy of everyone in the courtroom, save O’Hara, given the import of their task: The judge is nearly catatonic, the jury is a passel of yokels, and even the gawkers titter and squeak like mooks at the tri-county duck races.
Sloane is in full force here — he’s been built up as the best defense lawyer in the country — and when he takes the stand to examine himself, his talent is revealed to be not a brilliant legal mind, but a flair for theatrics. And his act isn’t even a powerful, moving monologue — it’s a cheap stand-up routine. Of all the jabs Welles throws at the legal profession, the knockout blow may be his suggestion that a good lawyer is nothing more than a failed comedian.
The verdict is read and O’Hara is sentenced to the gas chamber amid hoots and hollers. And then we cut away, for some reason, to a group of mysterious Asians, listening to radio from their penthouse apartment high above San Francisco. I’m fascinated by this shot. Who are these people? What are they doing? Why are they wasting their time listening to the radio? Don’t they have some nefarious Asian schemes to plot?
The older gent on the left is showing a weary curiosity, while the guy in the middle is devilishly pursing his lips, and the two fellows in the back, out of focus no less, have just dropped their stomachs. What the Hell is going on here? Has a giant gap opened and we’ve discovered that there’s some vast Asian conspiracy that’s been pulling the strings all along? Or is the guy in the chair another former lover of Elsa’s, delighted to see one of her endless string of suitors condemned to death? Personally, I think they’re just two people who were betting on the outcome of the trial, but there’s so many more possibilities.
As a final gag, O’Hara’s escape is less a cause for alarm than an excuse for grandstanding. The judge poses on the phone for the press while the poor bailiff continues to lie on the floor unattended. The overturned chess board speaks for itself.
And in the fight preceding the scene, the action is sped up a la James Bond — that’s one the earliest instances I’ve ever seen of it down, and I assume it’s because Welles wasn’t an especially quick fighter.
In any event, O’Hara fakes his own death, escapes, and hides out in Chinatown (!), appropriately enough at a Chinese opera.
And it’s appropriate that O’Hara decides to hide out in a play, since he’s just come from one. The audience even has the same vacant expression. The difference is that he’s no longer the star — that would be Elsa. her thick, black coat contrasts with the light grays of the performers, and Welles suspends the deep focus to close in on Hayworth. The trial may have been her hiding place, but now she sticks out like, well, like a white woman at a Chinese opera.
And then we come to the final and most famous sequence — one of those bits of cinema that you’re likely to see referenced before actually knowing the source. So why a funhouse? There’s no setup for it in the story — Grisby never tells O’Hara to drop the money off there; Elsa never professes a love for it; and not only does Bannister not look like your typical “Funhouse” guy, but what use would he have for one? He’s already a twisted pretzel of a man. The answer, of course, is that it’s thematically appropriate. It also looks fantastic, which certainly helps.
It’s not the subtlest of metaphors, and the use of mirrors was already old hat back in 1946, but subtlety is the last thing Welles is going for. Lady‘s carried its big, broad, exotic tone so far, to deliver anything less than outright chaos would be cheating.
It’s also one of the few times that a single character occupies the screen. If you look back through the images included here, there’s at least two in almost every one, and often three, four, seven, etc. And not only are there always tons of people, but they’re always invading each other’s space. When Bannister meets O’Hara in the bar, he stands uncomfortably close; when Grisby unveils the plans to fake his death, he’s practically standing on O’Hara’s feet; everyone in the courtroom is squeezed together so tightly, Bannister can barely walk between the jury box and the witness stand. Even when two characters are talking and the camera goes back and forth between speakers, their faces are so tightly framed, they’re about to pop out. The wide-open space of the sequence would be a relief were it not for the extreme canted angles. It’s not set up by the story, but it certainly is by the camerawork, which has been building to utter disorientation all along.
It’s a shame that so much of it apparently has been lost, but what we get is nonetheless impressive. Aside from the strange and terrible drawings (that horse smoking a pipe still tramples on my dreams), many of the shots are from the perspective of the funhouse itself — the jaws opening to swallow up O’Hara and the shot above that whirrs from right to left like a pendulum or manic metronome.
One thing does confuse me: How does Bannister know where to find Elsa? And why is he looking for Elsa specifically and not O’Hara? For now it seems like he’s given up on killing I’Hara and suddenly decided to kill his wife. Why? What crucial but of information has he learned between O’Hara’s escape and now that’s made him give up his vendetta against O’Hara (and why did it exist in the first place?)?
There’s a few possible answers: Bannister has realized that Elsa and Grisby were working together and plotting to kill him. That doesn’t explain how he knows to look in the funhouse. And for that matter, what’s the deal with his line right before he starts shooting? It’s a casual aside, spoken out loud but to himself: “Even though killing you is killing myself.” Huh? The way Sloane deliver the line, I take it to mean that he truly loves Elsa, but so far Bannister’s shown nothing but disdain for his wife, and all of a sudden he’s inextricably tied to her?
Then again, the line could be taken literally. It’s visually true — his image and Elsa’s image overlap, and by shooting her reflection (or person), he’ll be shooting his own. Literally it’s true as well, since shooting her will give away his position and allow Elsa to shoot him. In any event, this answer is clearer: The Hall of Mirrors is a really, really cool image. And I’m fine with that. It’s dramatic, it’s fulfilling, and, like most of the other sequences in the film, you need only a passing knowledge of what’s going on to appreciate. Lady may not have a great story, but it’s overflowing with great scenes.
And that may be the reason why, in the Welles canon, it seems to rank as “near great.” It’s not as perfectly tied up as Kane nor does it seem to be regarded as a “lost masterpiece” like Ambersons — though it was the victim of studio meddling. It’s not completely forgotten like The Stranger, but it’s not the great comeback flick like Touch of Evil either. It holds a place within noir classics, but the experimental lighting, canted angles, and use of deep focus aren’t so much noir as characteristic of Welles’ filmmaking. I don’t think it can, nor should it be, categorized neatly, rather, if anything, it should keep you guessing.
Next Time: MACBETH (1948)