The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

100And just when I thought I was finished with film noir for the moment, Olive Films goes and puts Lady from Shanghai out on blu-ray. I’d never really had the opportunity to see it before, although I had seen the same three minutes as everybody else: the climax in the hall of mirrors that is justly held up as a masterpiece of cinema.

ladyfromshanghai_1948_mp_40by60But there’s a problem with finally seeing a movie when you’ve been exposed to its peak moment for years (nay, decades), which goes hand-in-hand with a very sad realization: when you are watching any of Orson Welles’ studio-backed pictures you are inevitably watching damaged goods.

Studio interference with The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil is legendary, but it wasn’t until I started digging into Shanghai that I began to be aware of that tale of woe. Welles liked to tell the story of how Lady from Shanghai came to be: The Mercury Theater was opening a musical version of Around the World in Eighty Days and when producer Mike Todd pulled out, the costumes were impounded until Welles came up with the $55,000 owed. He got on the phone to Columbia’s Harry Cohn and offered to write, produce, direct and star in a movie for Columbia, if Cohn would wire him 55 grand immediately. Welles (depending on the telling) either claimed he grabbed a paperback novel off a spinner rack near the phone booth, or a book the girl in the box office was reading: Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake. In either case,Welles had never read it. Cohn bit.

Hey, I'm sold.

Hey, I’m sold.

Cohn also later stated he would never again hire someone to produce, act and star in a movie because then he couldn’t fire any of them.

It is reported that Welles’ first cut of the movie ran 155 minutes. That means that the version I saw is short by almost an hour and ten minutes. Cohn found the movie incomprehensible. The connection between those two facts is obvious.

ladyfromshanghaiWelles plays Mike O’Hara, an itinerant Irish sailor (and such an accent! Sure, and I should have watched it on St. Patrick’s Day, when the blu-ray was released, begorrah!), who falls into the sphere of Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), when he rescues her from some toughs one night in Central Park. Elsa convinces her husband, rich, crippled criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Eliott Sloane) to hire O’Hara as bosun on his yacht for a cruise to the West Coast. Coming along for the ride is Bannister’s rather unbalanced partner, Grisby (Glenn Anders).

This being a noir movie, Elsa’s obvious attraction to O’Hara is going to blossom into a love affair. Grisby, obsessed with the certainty of nuclear war, has a harebrained scheme to fake his death at the hands of O’Hara so he can make off with the insurance money and hide out on a South Seas island while the world goes to hell. O’Hara, desperate for the money to finance a new life for himself and Elsa, agrees. This will backfire spectacularly as O’Hara is arrested for Grisby’s very real murder and finds himself on trial with Bannister as his lawyer.

lady from shanghai 06There are many, many ways is which the plot has been sabotaged to this point by the chainsaw editing. O’Hara sensibly resists Elsa for quite some time, but finally succumbs after a Cohn-mandated song. In fact, there is remarkably little chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, surprising since they were husband and wife at the time (perhaps not surprisingly, as that union didn’t last much longer. It’s possible that the movie was a last attempt to save the marriage – but that also casts a dark shadow on Welles’ insistence that Hayworth cut short her trademark long red hair and bleach it platinum blonde.). The camera has no problem making love to Hayworth in numerous close-ups, however (also mandated by Cohn).

Grisby’s plot to fake his own murder is so unconnected to reality that O’Hara’s agreeing to go along with it renders him the densest of all chumps in a genre built on chumps falling for stupid schemes. When the main problem with the plan is brought up by Bannister at the trial – how was the supposedly dead Grisby going to collect on that insurance? – the audience is muttering “I was saying that a half-hour ago.”

And that trial! Oy, such nonsense piled upon nonsense! Surprise subpoenas, the defense attorney called as a prosecution witness, who then cross-examines himself… well, Anatomy of a Murder it ain’t.

shanghai3O’Hara desperately overdoses on Bannister’s pain pills and uses the chaos to escape (after quite a fight scene in the judge’s chambers. Welles really enjoyed trashing rooms), and this where Lady from Shanghai finally starts developing its own unique character, and the extent of the damage from Cohn’s editors begins to really assert itself.

At the movie’s opening, Elsa tells O’Hara she had worked in Shanghai and Macao. Later, her maid begs O’Hara to take the job, because Elsa is a waif trapped in a nest of vipers; in fact, you can’t find worse traveling companions than Elsa, Arthur and Grisby, all constant passive-aggressive hated and sniping. There is reference to “something” that Bannister has on Elsa, that he used to blackmail her into marriage.

ladyshanghai5Now, as the movie enters its final stretch, a drug-addled O’Hara stumbles through Chinatown, finally hiding in the audience of a Peking Opera. He is effortlessly stalked by Elsa, gliding though the streets, speaking to passers-by in Mandarin. At the theater, she calls a gangster named Li, who arrives and spirits the now-unconscious O’Hara out under the nose of the Police. O’Hara has picked a perilous moment to black out, as he has just discovered, in Elsa’s purse, the gun that killed Grisby.

Yes, Elsa becomes ten times more interesting and complex in that segment, rendering everything she’s done to this point questionable, yet any explanation of how and why seems to be on the cutting room floor.

This leads to the gang’s hideout in an off-season amusement park, and the legendary Hall of Mirrors shootout as O’Hara finally discovers the depths of his chump-dom and the extent of Elsa’s poison noir dame-ness. Apparently as much as twenty minutes was trimmed from this imaginative sequence, and that is a major fucking crime against cinema in particular and art in general.

Lady-3Welles’ intention was to film the story in a fairly documentary fashion, with lots of location shooting (including yet another rich man’s transformation of his wife’s wish for a picnic into a massive, ultimately bitter, production number), and no close-ups, which must have driven Cohn, already upset over the “ruining” of his prime star with a haircut, that much closer to apoplexy. The trial scene is meant to be Brechtian parody, but no one in the intended audience had ever even heard of Bertolt Brecht. The resulting movie is the sad, scarred record of two men fighting to tell a story, each his own way, and neither particularly getting his way.

The Lady from Shanghai opened to indifferent box office and scathing reviews (except in Europe, where Welles was always more appreciated), but has come to be revered as a masterpiece, the “greatest weird picture ever made.”

And you look at it and you think, 155 minutes. Jesus. What did I miss?What did we miss?

Movie Catchup, June Edition

A very busy week, made suddenly very complicated by a sudden call to complete a long-delayed dental procedure. That is why I haven’t been around.

Monday, Tuesday: city meetings, where I run audio. Wednesday: story for June video magazine due. Also work all evening doing slide slow for my wife’s graduating class this Saturday. It was urgent I get the damn thing done because it is now Thursday morning, we just finished shooting the stand-ups for the magazine, and in three hours I’m going to be in a dental chair getting four or five damaged, increasingly worthless teeth extracted and an immediate denture slapped in. This is something I have never experienced, and I have no idea what sort of condition I will be in tonight. Soup is almost certainly on the menu.

I have the freaking order of the slideshow done, but was frustrated from roughly 10pm to midnight last night because I could not get any sort of music file to play in it. I’ve been using Open Office for the last couple of years because I couldn’t afford Microsoft Office. Last year I managed this trick just fine in OpenOff’s version of Power Point, Impress. This year I’m suddenly being told that any file format – even the ones specifically mentioned in the Open File dialog – are “not supported”. Surfing around forums proves no help. Turns out if I just tell it to embed, save it to a Power Point show and then use Microsoft’s free Power Point viewer the music plays just fine. A bulky, cumbersome workaround, which means I’m timing blind, and still not finished, so hopefully I won’t be too wrecked tonight. Graduation is Saturday morning.

But yeah, I still managed to watch some movies, somewhere in there. Mainly because my landline shorted out and I was without the Net for three days.

I saw Avengers again, this time with my family. Still amazing, still flawless entertainment. I’m still embittered that every bit that would have made me go woohoo had been spoiled for me by the time I actually saw it – where are the Internet outages when you really need them? – but I got to see my wife and son react to them, so that was cool. Had to spend most of the end credits explaining to my son who… that guy at the end was (I still tread carefully for you, dear reader), and I wonder how many nerds had to explain that to non-nerd companions. I checked, and in my copy ofThe Marvel Encyclopedia, he only gets one-sixth of a page.

In any case, my wife is the very definition of a non-comics nerd, and she thought the movie was amazing. Which it is.

My other movies were at the other end of the scale, budget and amazing-wise. Saturday morning I was up at a Godforsaken hour because that’s what your body does to you, and I watched While the City Sleeps, a Fritz Lang-directed piece of newspaper noir from 1956. Lang is always worth watching, and the layered story here is pretty good. First off, a news media magnate kicks off after insisting that his various outlets sensationalize a murder where the killer left the message “Ask Mother” scrawled in lipstick on a wall. Then, his son (Vincent Price!) arrives to take over, without much of any experience in the trade. He creates a new position, Executive Director, and tells the heads of the three branches: Wire Service, Newspaper, and Photos – that whoever solves the case of the Lipstick Killer gets the job.

The cast is great: George Sanders as the Wire honcho, Ida Lupino as a conniving society columnist, Dana Andrews starring as a Pulitzer-winning TV news analyst who used to work the crime beat, and slowly finds himself sucked into the investigation. Toss in Howard Duff as the detective in charge of the case, and you got your very solid detective thriller cast. Andrews finally tucks into the case with glee, eventually putting his girlfriend in danger; it’s pretty amazing to see so many of the threads of the unsub-killer genres being used at this early date, as Andrews and Duff begin profiling the killer. And even if detective stories with a dollop of soap opera aren’t your thing, who could possibly pass up a chance to see Vincent Price in Bermuda shorts?

I also have to say that seeing a story involving journalistic integrity made me absolutely wistful. Man, fuck NewsCorp.

My viewing of While the City Sleeps was also movie number 15 on The List, so goal achieved on watching half of them before Summer hit. Huzzah.

The other movie seen during the outage was chosen at random, something I’d had for a while: You’ll Find Out, which is a parody of Old Dark House movies starring Kay Kyser (and his College of Musical Knowledge), and three guys named Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre.

Kyser is sort of a blip on the landscape these days, but he was pretty darn successful in his day, famous enough that he and Moe-bedecked comedian Ish Kabibble crop up in Looney Tunes. His radio show, a combination variety and game show, was quite popular. It’s unsurprising that he’d make the crossover to movies. It’s also a little unfortunate.

Admittedly, You’ll Find Out is his first movie. Maybe he got more confident, Ish Kabibble less annoying. But I doubt it.

Okay, so Kyser and his band are playing at the 21st birthday party of his manager’s fiancee. Of course, she lives with her eccentric aunt at a creepy old house accessible only by a single bridge, which will mysteriously blow up in the course of the movie. Somebody’s been trying to kill the fiancee, possibly Boris as the old family friend, Bela as the psychic who’s been getting lots of money from the superstitious aunt, or Lorre as a psychic-busting scientist. Or, given that it’s Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre, it’s probably all three. Oh, sorry. Spoiler.

When I was a kid, I was always pissed off that You”ll Find Out kept getting scheduled in the late night horror movie slot. I thought that perhaps now, as an old-timer, I could better appreciate it. Well, nottttttttt really, it turns out. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not a forgotten gem, either. Our big three bad guys act like they’re in a different picture entirely, and I kinda wish I had been watching that movie. The musical numbers are good, but achingly white. I dearly wished Cab Calloway could have dropped by for at least one number. And as I pointed out on Twitter, the final number employs a device used by Lugosi for ghostly voices to make it appear Kyser’s vocalist is singing through the band’s instruments, making it the first instance of auto-tuning, in the year 1940.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get my jaw ripped out.