Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review- The Lady From Shanghai

"When I start out to make a fool of myself there's very little can stop me."- Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) speaking the first line of "The Lady From Shanghai".

"Loverrrr..."- Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) drunkenly yells at his wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) as his equally odious-but less talented- partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) looks on.

We think we know where we are when the film starts... the soaring orchestral score (which the director despised1) under the credits bringing us into a romantic crime melodrama... a bitter, glib narrator filled with cute lines about how much of a fool he is, or how stupid... there's a dangerous woman who is a powerful man's wife... some sort of a plot about murder and money which no one (not even the director) can figure out. A film noir, in other words.

And we've seen those before.

But this is different...

Elsa (Hayworth) confronts several truths about herself.

"...Shanghai" is less a film and more some sort of fever dream posing as a film noir. As much as the movies are dream versions of real life, this movie is like a dream version of a movie. Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara (Orson Welles) and Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth)2 speaking in hushed or dreamy tones, while Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and George Grisby (Glenn Anders) bray in harsh, strident, intense voices. When Elsa's musicality becomes much more strained in the later scenes, it is Welles the director having Elsa reveal her true colors at last.

"...I'm pretty tired of both of us"- Arthur Bannister has his Bergman Persona moment with his wife.

Welles used every trick in the book to make this story transcend it's pulpy beginnings to a story of romantic nightmare, not just with sound manipulation, although his extensive reworking of vocal soundtracks in the post-production process is one of his trademarks3. The camera work actually builds to the bravura funhouse sequence, beginning with the sped-up/under-cranked fight sequence in the park (which is called back in the judges chambers later- Apparently when Michael fights, his opponents become the Keystone Cops) leading to when he says goodbye to Elsa at the parking garage and suddenly Broome (Ted DeCorsia) and Grisby appear out of nowhere. Two characters we will be seeing a lot more of, commenting without introduction on what we've just seen, with a background character we never see again. This mise en scene is seemingly without precedent in the film and yet sets up a feeling that will occur again and again in the story... that we're never on steady ground, nothing is real or permanent, an attorney can put himself on the stand and begin questioning his own involvement in the case, a trapdoor can open at any point... this is the world we (and Michael O'Hara) find ourselves in.

Orson Welles as Michael O'Hara looking dazed, an expression that marks him as audience surrogate for most of "The Lady From Shanghai".

I've talked a little about the vocal performances from the actors, and I think it's important to mention it again. Welles, Sloane, and DeCorsia were all radio veterans with Anders, Erskine Sandford and Gus Schilling having had mostly stage experience. All of these actors were used to utilizing their voices as much as their visual appearance to portray their characters and serve the story. Anders usually gets the praise for the insinuating purr of his Grisby character, but I want to call your attention to Everett Sloane as Arthur Bannister, "The World's Greatest Criminal Defense Attorney" as it is repeated throughout the film.
"Killing you is killing myself... it's the same thing..." Arthur Bannister gets the drop on his own reflection.
We first see Sloane waddling in on two canes his character has to use to get around. His voice and manner are appropriate, but timid. We can tell Bannister is out of his element here in a sailor's hiring hall- he's looking for Michael O'Hara to hire him as the bequest of his wife Elsa- his voice is quieter, almost timid as he is intimidated by his surroundings to the point of allowing O'Hara to get him to buy himself and his two friends drinks "while I entertain myself by refusin' to go to work for'im". But once Bannister is drunk, he begins to reveal one of his motivating characteristics- the way Sloane enunciates "tough guy" and passes out on the line "Well... bare it in mind..."- Bannister, ashamed of his deformity, worships power and wields his own mental power over those he knows could best him physically. Sloane is constantly warping his character's voice from the gazillion different ways he has of calling his wife "Lover" to the intense, minor key tones he uses for the conversation he and Elsa have over Michael's fate toward the end of the trial sequence tones that he alternates with jovial hail-fellow-well-met greetings to various members of the court passing by. To watch just Sloane in this film is to see how much Welles loved the actor's vocal instrument.

It's interesting how much most commentary on "The Lady From Shanghai" is spent on the Hall Of Mirrors shootout. It's a great scene, one of Welles' best in both conception and execution, but when you see this film pay attention to all of it. Even in it's current, truncated form4 it is, to my eyes one of the great Orson Welles films, certainly on par with "Touch Of Evil" or "F For Fake", if not "Citizen Kane"5.

1- Welles supposedly wrote in a memo to Harry Cohn, Columbia's chief re: the score ""The only idea which seems to have occurred to this present composer is the rather weary one of using a popular song -- the "theme" -- in as many arrangements as possible.... Lady From Shanghai is not a musical comedy."
2- Elsa says she's "White Russian" early on in the film, while Welles makes a point of mentioning his character's nickname "Black Irish" a couple of times to bring out the characters' contrasting natures. Elsa is "white" while being one of the darkest characters and Michael is "Black" yet is also the erstwhile hero of the story.
3- Voices seem to come out of nowhere, with characters frequently seen looking frantically about the frame in a scene or montage for the some sort of stable source.
4-Welles made a cut of about 155 minutes which the studio then pared down to 88 minutes.
5-Paid for by The People's Committee To Show That Orson Welles Made More Than One Great Film.

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