And 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.
But 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.
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.
Welles 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.
There 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.
O’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.
Now, 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.
Welles’ 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?