Friday, November 15, 2013

The Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Orson Welles’ film The Lady from Shanghai remains one of my very favorites, looking backwards to Citizen Kane (both films have long, joyless party scenes set in jungle environments and involving a super-rich but utterly hateful man and his blonde trophy wife; also, Welles deliberately cast the jurors in his trial scene with the same actors who’d played the former Chronicle columnists Kane lured over to the Inquirer) and even farther back, to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (one of Welles’ all-time favorite films and the inspiration for his decision to set the final shoot-out in a fun house; in his next film, Macbeth, Welles would tap Caligari for inspiration again and deliberately use stylized, anti-realistic sets to make the entire film a visual reflection of Macbeth’s madness). But Shanghai also looks forward to Touch of Evil (notably in a scene in which Rita Hayworth flees through a seedy Mexican town with Welles in hot pursuit) and some of Hitchcock’s films. Welles essentially transformed Hayworth for this role the way Hitchcock made over Kim Novak for Vertigo (a film with some intriguing similarities to Shanghai, not only in the San Francisco setting — the two even share a setup of the heroine’s big car pulling up in front of one of the classy hotels on top of Nob Hill — but also in casting its leading actress as a blonde luring the hero into an unwitting involvement in her husband’s murder plot). Shanghai is a marvelous movie, one of the very best noir films (right up there with the 1941 Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet) even though its plot makes almost no sense — at a screening of a rough cut on the Columbia lot studio chief Harry Cohn offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain the story to him! — and it’s also, by a wide margin, Rita Hayworth’s finest performance; whatever the personal trials and tribulations between Hayworth and Welles, on screen and off, he got her to give her finest and most sexually alluring performance precisely by toning her down and not letting her just hurl her physical beauty at the camera. Just about everything I’ve read about Hayworth indicates that she was a reluctant performer who regarded acting as a job — not a calling the way, say, Bette Davis did — and it took either an unusually well-written role, like the title part in Gilda,[1] and/or an especially talented director like Welles to give her any real impact and depth on screen. — 7/25/04


Our “feature” last night was The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles’ enigmatic film noir from … well, it was shot (mostly) in 1946, the copyright date (and the one listed for it in is 1947 but it wasn’t generally released until 1948. It was made by Columbia Pictures as a vehicle for their biggest star, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles’ second wife; their marriage was on the rocks at this point but she nonetheless agreed to make a film with him in hopes it would help his career. The project began when Welles asked Columbia president Harry Cohn for money to keep afloat his 1946 stage production of a musical version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, and Welles told Cohn he had a script in mind that would pair him and Hayworth which he would film for Columbia if Cohn backed his show. Cohn sent the money after asking Welles what the story for the film was called. Seeing someone in his crew reading a pulp mystery called If I Die Before I Wake by one Sherwood King, Welles gave that as the title of his film and told Cohn to buy the rights. Later Cohn found that he didn’t have to buy the rights because he already owned them; William Castle, legendary as the horror-schlockmeister of the 1950’s but then a director in Cohn’s “B” unit, had paid for the book out of his own pocket and assigned Columbia the rights on condition that he either direct the film himself or be involved in the production. Accordingly, Castle got credit as “associate producer” and worked essentially as Welles’ assistant (and uncredited second-unit director and screenwriter) on the film. The plot somewhat follows the template of Hayworth’s previous success, Gilda (1946), in casting her as the unhappy wife of a rich man who toys with a much younger, hunkier, sexier affair partner — only the presence of Welles as director (instead of Charles Vidor) and star (instead of Glenn Ford) makes this a considerably more interesting movie. The naturally dark-haired Hayworth, née Cansino, was naturally a raven-haired half-Argentinian but had become a superstar in 1941 after dyeing her hair red and using electrolysis to raise her hairline — but that wasn’t good enough for Welles: he insisted that Hayworth bob her hair and bleach it blonde, giving her the same sort of enigmatic air as the famous blondes in Hitchcock’s movies. Indeed, Welles’ transformation of Hayworth in Shanghai is an eerie premonition of what Hitchcock did to another Columbia sex goddess, Kim Novak, in Vertigo a decade later: he got her to tone down the blatant sexuality and therefore made her more powerful and alluring than she’d been before. To the extent you can follow it, the story — which was so confusing that when it was first screened for Cohn and the other Columbia “suits,” Cohn famously said he’d pay $1,000 to anyone who could explain it to him — deals with Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles, in an “Irish” accent that sounds pretty phony but rooted enough in reality that Charles asked me if Welles was Irish — he wasn’t, but he had spent two years in Dublin as a teenager, apprenticing at the Gate Theatre), a sailor at liberty in New York who rescues Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from an attempted mugging in Central Park, then commandeers the carriage she was riding in and takes her home. He’s immediately smitten with her, and remains so even though she’s the wife of the famous criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), who prides himself on never having lost a case.

Bannister hires O’Hara to work on his yacht, the Circe (played by Errol Flynn’s yacht, Zaca — the film crew actually toured through the Caribbean, down to Brazil and back up via the west coast of Mexico on the Zaca, and Flynn, who had rented the yacht to Columbia on condition that he be allowed to come along and that the studio hire his usual crew and take over paying them for the duration of the production, got into some bizarre scrapes that in some ways were as dramatic and entertaining as anything in the film itself), and the film is full of both sexual and class tensions between the crew, the servants and the principals: O’Hara, the Bannisters and Bannister’s barely competent law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby tells O’Hara he wants to disappear and move to a South Seas island with his wife to avoid the coming nuclear holocaust. To do that, he’s hatched a plot to pay $5,000 to O’Hara to sign a confession saying that he murdered Grisby. The idea, or at least so Grisby tells our rather dim hero, is that Mrs. Grisby will collect on the couple’s insurance and join him there with the money, and the two will live out their days accordingly. Only by the time the Circe reaches its destination, San Francisco, Grisby ends up killed for real — as does Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), who had shipped out on the Circe as a steward but was really the private detective Bannister used in divorce cases, there to collect evidence of Elsa’s infidelity so Bannister could divorce her and not have to pay a settlement. O’Hara is arrested for Grisby’s murder — after all, there’s a confession he signed stating he did it — and Bannister agrees to represent him but deliberately does such an incompetent job he turns the trial into a farce. Facing almost certain conviction — though we never actually hear the jury’s verdict — O’Hara escapes and hides out in a theatre in San Francisco’s Chinatown that’s performing a Chinese opera. Elsa follows him there, but O’Hara ends up groggy from some pain pills he took in court in a botched suicide attempt (at least we think it’s a botched suicide attempt) and when he comes to he’s in the fun house at San Francisco’s real-life Playland (an amusement park on the city’s west coast that actually existed, but was torn down in the early 1970’s), where Bannister and Elsa confront and shoot each other. Before confronting his wife, Bannister had left a statement with the San Francisco D.A., to be opened on his death, explaining that Elsa actually killed Grisby and thereby freeing O’Hara of legal responsibility for the charge, so O’Hara is free and all the other principals are dead.

It’s not much of a plot in synopsis, but it’s what Welles does with it on screen that matters; drawing on influences as varied as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which was, not surprisingly, where Welles got the idea of setting the final shoot-out in a fun house, with the famous shots of Bannister and Elsa in the hall of mirrors, aiming at each other and shooting out their multiple reflections) and Welles’ own Citizen Kane (both Kane and Shanghai feature sequences in which middle-aged men throw lavish picnics for their blonde trophy wives that become singularly joyless occasions; “It was no more a picnic than Bannister was a man,” Welles as O’Hara tells us in his wry, cynical voice-over narration), Welles put together one of the most powerful femme fatale stories of the entire noir era even though the story makes precious little sense. The Lady from Shanghai has its flaws — most of which aren’t Welles’ fault; the film is way overscored by Heinz Roemheld, who with Cohn’s enthusiastic support threw out Welles’ carefully crafted sound design and wrote a lot of “Mickey Mouse” cues that mimicked the action on screen with embarrassing obviousness. (The term “Mickey Mousing” comes from Walt Disney’s insistence on the early Mickey Mouse cartoons that picture and sound be very carefully and closely synchronized so the whole idea of a talking cartoon would make sense to audiences. Disney’s films became so famous for this that “Mickey Mousing” became a standard term in Hollywood to indicate any film in which the images and soundtrack were very closely synched.) Cohn also commissioned a song called “Please Don’t Kiss Me” by his house songwriters, Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, and had Rita Hayworth sing it in one sequence (though she was actually dubbed by Anita Ellis, who’d been her voice double in Gilda as well; in later years Hayworth was bitter that Harry Cohn had spent a small fortune on voice teachers for her but never actually used her singing voice in a film) — which Welles shot while she’s lying on some rocks on a beach, in anticipation of the way Marilyn Monroe would be depicted singing in several of her films (and the breathy delivery Ellis gives the song only adds to the Monroe-esque quality!).

The film also includes an intense chase scene through some of the seedier parts of Acapulco that echoes a long sequence Welles had been forced to cut from his immediately previous directorial project, The Stranger (the only film Welles ever directed that turned a profit on its initial release) and anticipates what Welles would do to the U.S.-Mexico border in Touch of Evil a decade later. The Lady from Shanghai absolutely jolted me when I first saw it on the “Dialing for Dollars” show in San Francisco in the early 1970’s, and it’s still an impressive piece of work, full of Wellesian touches — long tracking shots, round camera images, chiaroscuro camerawork, depth-of-field shots (Charles Lawton was the credited cinematographer and it’s clear he grasped Welles’ style well, though lists noir specialist Rudolph Maté — on the cusp of transition from cinematographer to director — and Joseph Walker, the man who shot most of the major Columbia Capras, as uncredited co-cinematographers) and an overall sense of malevolent fate surrounding the characters. At points during the movie one gets the impression O’Hara and Elsa are being so completely watched they simply can’t get a break; not only does Grisby’s roving telescope (the source of those round images) follow them during the yacht trip, but even in San Francisco, meeting in the Steinhardt Aquarium, they’re discovered kissing by a teacher leading a field trip and her whole class. The film went through several working titles, including Black Irish (the nickname of Welles’ character, though one can see why Columbia didn’t go with “Rita Hayworth in Black Irish”) and Take This Woman, before it ended up named after a reference Elsa makes to having lived in Shanghai for a while (which becomes an important plot point later on when she’s able to locate O’Hara in Chinatown because she speaks Chinese — though a “goofs” poster on notes that though Shanghai has its own dialect, the Chinese Rita Hayworth speaks is sometimes Mandarin and sometimes Cantonese) that gave the film an appealingly exotic air even though not a frame of it actually takes place in China.

The Lady from Shanghai was a box-office flop, though part of that seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of Harry Cohn; because he didn’t think audiences would want to see Rita Hayworth in a film with her soon-to-be ex-husband in which he’d shorn her famous flaming red tresses and bleached them blonde, he basically dumped the film on the market and rushed Rita into a more conventional movie, The Loves of Carmen, based on the novel and opera Carmen and co-starring the male lead from Gilda, Glenn Ford. Not surprisingly, as Welles’ reputation as a director improved, The Lady from Shanghai got rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece; in his 1958 book on Welles, French critic André Bazin said that if Welles had made no other films than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai, he would still be one of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. (Welles’ own list of his best films was Kane, Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight, but Chimes wasn’t made until seven years after Bazin’s death in 1958.) The Lady from Shanghai is also probably the Orson Welles film in which he looks the hunkiest he ever did, apparently thanks to a diet he went on just before making it: so much so that my mother formed a crush on him when she saw it on its initial release. Alas, Welles soon left the U.S. to live in Europe for the next decade, and my mom didn’t see Welles in a movie again until Touch of Evil, by which time he’d become the huge, bloated apparition he was in his later days — aided by body padding, which he wore in both Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight after some bizarre imp of the perverse by which he apparently decided that once he could no longer slim down to play the romantic leading man, he would go whole-hog (no pun intended) the other way and make himself not only fat but grotesquely obese on screen. My mom told me she saw Touch of Evil on its initial release and sat through the whole movie — or at least every scene in which the bloated Welles appeared — remembering the hunk she’d seen in The Lady from Shanghai and thinking, “What … happened? Whathappened?” — 11/15/13

[1] — Though based on the evidence of Shanghai I still think Gilda would have been a much better movie if Welles had directed it and also played the Glenn Ford role!