Thursday, 24 July 2014

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "The Lady from Shanghai" (1947).

For my fourth entry for the NZIFF, I have watched the Orson Welles classic The Lady from Shanghai. The opening lines “When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start... if I'd been in my right mind, that is. But once I'd seen her, I was not in my right mind for some time” sums up this 1947 film noir, directed by and starring Welles. As well as his estranged wife Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane. It is based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King.

In the summer of 1946, Welles was directing a musical stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days, with a comedic and ironic rewriting of the Jules Verne novel by Welles, incidental music and songs by Cole Porter, and production by Mike Todd, who would later produce the successful film version with David Niven. When Todd pulled out from the lavish and expensive production, Welles financed it. When he ran out of money and urgently needed $55,000 to release costumes which were being held, he convinced Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn to send him the money to continue the show and in exchange Welles promised to write, produce and direct a film for Cohn for no further fee. As Welles tells it, on the spur of the moment, he suggested the film be based on the book a girl in the theatre box office happened to be reading at the time he was calling Cohn, which Welles had never read. However, according to the daughter of William Castle, it was her father who had purchased the film adaptation rights for the novel and who then asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, with Castle hoping to receive the directoral assignment himself. She described her father as greatly respecting Welles' talents, but feeling nonetheless disappointed at being relegated to serve merely as Welles' assistant director on the film. 

The Lady from Shanghai began filming on 2 October 1946, and originally finished filming on 27 February 1947, with studio-ordered retakes continuing through March 1947 - but it was not released in the U.S. until 9 June 1948. Cohn strongly disliked Welles's rough-cut, particularly what he considered to be a confusing plot and lack of close-ups (Welles had deliberately avoided these, as a stylistic device), and was not in sympathy with Welles's Brechtian use of irony and black comedy, especially in a farcical courtroom scene. He also objected to the appearance of the film - Welles had aimed for documentary-style authenticity by shooting one of the first major Hollywood pictures almost entirely on location (in Acapulco, Pie de la Cuesta, Sausalito and San Francisco) using long takes, and Cohn preferred the more tightly-controlled look of footage lit and shot in a studio. Release was delayed due to Cohn ordering extensive editing and re-shoots by his assistants at Columbia, who insisted on cutting about an hour from Welles's final cut. Whereas Welles had delivered his cut of the film on time and under budget, the reshoots he was ordered to do meant that the film ended up over budget by a third, contributing to the director's reputation for going over budget. Once reshoots were over, the heavy editing ordered by Cohn took over a year to complete. Welles was appalled at the musical score and particularly aggrieved by the cuts to the climactic confrontation scene in an amusement park funhouse at the end of the film. Intended as a climactic tour-de-force of editing and production design, the scene was cut to fewer than three minutes out of an intended running time of twenty. As with many of Welles's films over which he did not have control over the final cut, the missing footage has not been found and is presumed to have been destroyed. Surviving production stills show elaborate and expensive sets built for the sequence which were entirely cut from the film.

Welles cast his wife Rita Hayworth as Elsa and caused controversy when he made her cut her famous long red hair and bleach it blonde for the role. In addition to the Columbia Pictures studios, the film was partly shot on location in San Francisco. It features the Sausalito waterfront and Sally Stanford's Valhalla waterfront bar and cafe, the front, interior, and a courtroom scene of the old Kearny Street Hall of Justice, and shots of Welles running across Portsmouth Square, escaping to a long scene in a theater in Chinatown, then the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park, and Whitney's Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park at Ocean Beach for the famous hall of mirrors scene, for which interiors were shot on a soundstage. Other scenes were filmed in Acapulco. The yacht Zaca, on which many scenes take place, was owned by actor Errol Flynn, who skippered the yacht in between takes and can also be seen in the background in one scene at a cantina in Acapulco. The film was considered a disaster in America at the time of its release, though the closing shootout in a hall of mirrors has since become one of the touchstones of film noir.

The performances in this film were all superbly acted. The cast gave some of the greatest performances of their careers, especially with its two main stars - Welles and Hayworth. Welles gave a brilliant performance as Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara. Overwhelmingly and endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of his character, Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara, and invites us to examine him and see the entire story through his eyes. For Hayworth, her performance as Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister was one of the most interesting portrayals of the Femme Fatale architype. These two together on screen were a match made in heaven. However, sadly, not long after release, Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce.

The Lady from Shanghai is one of the most interesting and technically superior films that has ever come out of the classic Hollywood system. It is staggering and belongs at once among the greatest screen achievements. However the rambling style used by Orson Welles has occasional bashes on the imagination, particularly in the tricky backgrounds he uses to unfold the yarn, but effects, while good on their own, are distracting to the murder plot. It is one of the most unusual films I have ever seen. Yet it is one of the most brilliant films I have ever seen.

Simon says The Lady from Shanghai receives:

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