Film Flick Friday: The Lady From Shanghai

Friday, June 15, 2012

You could say that Orson Welles started at the top, and worked his way down. Cinema’s Boy Genius, his directorial debut was Citizen Kane. What could top such brilliance? What followed was the inevitable fall from grace, and if Citizen Kane was at the top, The Lady from Shanghai was at the bottom, being his last Hollywood film for over ten years. Yet even a genius’ failures might be more interesting than some other director’s best work, and The Lady From Shanghai gives audiences both flashes of brilliance and boredom being played out across the screen.

Orson Welles directs and stars in this film noir as Michael O’Hara, a “Dark Irish” protagonist who falls for a beautiful woman, (played by Orsen's then-wife, Rita Hayworth). But the fact that O'Hara's lady love is a married woman should signal to everyone that this is a story with no happy ending in sight. When O'Hara gets hired on by the woman’s husband- crippled from the waist down, physically and metaphorically impotent- things get even more twisted. So his work life might be compared to swimming with sharks and his love life might not be much better, but a strange business proposition could turn everything around. This is the film that originates the famous Funhouse "Maze of Mirrors" shoot out, and, just like in a mirror maze, you will never know what’s real and what’s not in this convoluted plot, till that last bullet’s been plugged.

Hollywood myth has it that this film came about out of desperation. What Welles really wanted was money for a theatrical project and studio execs agreed to back it, in exchange for a film. The play ended in failure, quickly closing and Welles was in a tight fix, finally proposing to film the story of book he’d never read. Meanwhile, his marriage was also on the rocks. His wife’s career though, was anything but, and the studio saw Welles’ film as another place to cash in on Hayworth’s star power. Not exactly a brilliant start and what happened after even less so. Welles outraged the studio by going over budget, fighting with union workers and-perhaps worst of all- sheering Hayworth of her signature auburn mane, exchanging it for a bleached, bobbed look. When the studio viewed the director’s cut it was obvious they thought all that trouble had been for nothing too. It clocked in at 165 minutes- too long most thought- and was so convoluted studio head Harry Cohn reportedly said “I’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can explain the plot to me.” Fearing it would damage Hayworth’s reputation it was re-cut down to an even more confusing 80 minutes and then set on the shelf for over a year. In the wake of this film Welles was divorced and then exiled from Hollywood, his contract terminated.

So, was the studio right? In a word- Yes. The Lady From Shanghai fails as a film. But even so, there are some wonderful things happening. Even looking like a Marilyn-wanna-be Hayworth still sizzles with sex, and gives a very compelling performance. Actors Evertt Sloane, as husband Banister, and Glenn Anders, as George Grisby, bring some of the creepiest characters in Noir to life. The courtroom scene is black comedy gold and the Mirror Maze scene is, of course, brilliant. So what makes film a failure? Hubris on Welles’ part, I suspect. His acting here is atrocious and disappointing considering other acting he’s given. His Irish accent is grating and sounds about as real as a three-dollar bill. Worse, he seems like a limp fish next to Sex Symbol Hayworth. The energies aren’t matched at all; the chemistry just isn’t there! The plot’s beginning is far to slow; we are two thirds to the end before I begin to enjoy it! Its been said to have a convoluted plot, and it does in a way I suppose, but all the plot twists come so late, it doesn’t feel like it in the least. Some of the fault might be the studio’s re-cutting, but poor acting and writing skills are the real culprits in this murder mystery film.

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