Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Still feel guilty about not forcing yourself to watch all the black and white “classics” middle aged critics scold you for not seeing? Read on! Much like my running column about American movies in the 70s, I’m going to pick off films from the Golden Age of Hollywood and tell you if they’re actually worth checking out, or whether you’ll be forced to pretend to yourself that you’re enjoying the experience. Today’s classic: Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai.
The Lady from Shanghai
Reputation: One of director/actor Orson Welles’ “lost” masterpieces, butchered by the studios like all of his films except his first, Citizen Kane.
How it Holds Up: While it may be true that studio meddling and budget constraints hamstringed this project, it’s pretty doubtful that any amount of creative control by Welles could have made this movie good. Or even not terrible. The difference between this movie’s reputation as a flawed masterpiece and the actuality of its awfulness prompts me to question whether any of the Welles worshippers and critics who have given the film it’s formidable artistic reputation have actually seen the movie.
I’m sorry. It’s just that bad. It’s laughably bad. It’s like the Showgirls of the 40s. The movie begins with a very awkward voice-over/intro of hero Orson Welles and femme fatale Rita Hayworth. The voiceover is so heavy that the narrator—Orson Welles’ character—actually finishes the Orson character’s onscreen dialogue with voiceover saying, “I said.” Okay, this smacks of clueless studio meddling, but the biggest problem sits squarely on Welles. Welles gives his character (Michael O’Hara) an Irish accent that is roughly as authentic-sounding as Kevin Costner’s English accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Actually, it’s worse, because unlike Costner, Welles doggedly sticks with the accent the entire movie, obstinately refusing to admit he just can’t pull it off. It’s the kind of accent you expect to see during a high school production of Brigadoon—the most tone-deaf, embarrassing blend of a Scottish and Irish accent imaginable. Besides the fact that you can’t take anything Welles says seriously in the movie, it adds another problem: it totally inhibits his performance. Orson Welles—a master of the big, broad, theatrical-influenced acting of the Hollywood Golden Age—plays Michael O’Hara like he’s constipated the whole movie. You can tell he was going for “tightly wound”—his character suspects (and is correct) that he is being set up for a frame-up the whole time—but he just comes across as a big, wooden blah. Welles has his lips pursed in every scene as he struggles valiantly with the Irish accent he just can’t do, and as a result he never lets himself go in one of those great tirades familiar in his best roles (this guy would never tear a room apart like Charles Foster Kane or strangle a small-time Mexican gangster like Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil).
There’s two big problems with the story: 1) it makes no logical sense, and 2) it’s just plain weird. Welles plays a guy who’s lured by a femme fatale to join the crew of a sailboat she and her very rich, very crippled lawyer husband (played by Everett Sloane—Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane) are sailing around the world. Sloane’s character—with the great name “Arthur Bannister”—is supposedly the “greatest trial lawyer in the world.” They’re joined on the crew by Bannister’s partner at his San Francisco law firm, George Grisby (another great name). Welles knows something’s up because Rita Hayworth does everything she can to fuck him in every scene they have together, while Bannister and Grisby pervily egg him on to do it.
The weirdness of the performances of the Bannister and Grisby characters cannot be overstated. Sloane and Glenn Anders play the old San Francisco lawyers with the kind of homoerotic “subtlety” rarely seen outside the Castro District’s annual Gay Pride Parade. The performances are absolutely riveting to watch, but probably not because of the reasons they were intended for. They’re so far over the top that they take you out of the movie and make you giggle (just one e.g.: Sloane always and only addresses his wife as “lover”). On the other hand, they’re probably what make the movie worth checking out for the curious. Welles shoots pretty much every shot of these two characters up close and at a canted angle, with so much sweat dripping down their faces and craziness spraying out of their eyeballs you suspect that they’re masturbating below the camera line.
Again, the story is so implausible and illogical it makes string theory look straight forward. I won’t even attempt to parse it here. I’ll just say that Welles is framed as Grisby’s murderer and Bannister ends up as Welles’ defense lawyer. Even in 1947, it’s doubtful that audiences were naïve enough to believe that Bannister—a man so deeply involved in this case that he’s the prosecution’s star witness and ends up cross-examining himself on the stand—would be allowed to defend Welles. The whole plot sounds like a comedy when you think about it in retrospect, but I assure you it’s played with the utmost seriousness.
The biggest redeeming quality of the film—besides the unintentional comedy of the performances—is Welles’ visual flare. There are great shots throughout, and a pretty cool Hall of Mirrors shootout scene at the end. The most visually flamboyant sequence is the “funhouse” scene at the end: Welles is brought to a funhouse to be killed at the end of the movie for no discernible reason other than that it would be visually interesting to have a scene in a funhouse. The effectiveness of this scene is emblematic of the overarching failure movie as a whole: The slight surreal coolness of the shots are ruined by the ham-handed silliness that preceded it and that is taking place even while the cool shots are being pulled off. Remember those old Monty Python man-in-the-street interviews they’d run after a particularly ludicrous sketch where Terry Jones, playing an old English granny, would say something like, “I don’t like it. Too silly”? That’s the only sensible critical reaction to The Lady from Shanghai.
Really Dated By: Sloane and Anders’ performances alone are airtight arguments for the necessity of the development of Method Acting a decade later.
DVD Bonuses: The lone critical voice on The Lady from Shanghai disc is provided by… guess who?! Peter Bogdanovich. As I detailed in my Third Man piece, Bogdanovich befriended the old, washed-up Welles in the 70s and fawningly soaked up all of his stories and self-mythologizing, so the journalistic integrity of having a personal friend and admitted devotee being the only “critical” voice on the DVD is questionable…but I guess DVDs aren’t necessarily held to the same standard as other media outlets. And Bogdonavich doesn’t disappoint: he kicks things off by appearing in one of his trademark ascots and telling us that he was “blown away” by The Lady from Shanghai.
As much as I rip on Bogdanovich, he does offer some interesting facts and insights about the production and meaning of these films. He’s at his best when he’s talking about Welles’ mis-en-scene. Clips are shown of the interestingly-shot location stuff in the movie, and Bogdanovich points out how Welles uses “the background to comment on and undermine the drama going on in the foreground.” Hey, he did direct The Last Picture Show, I guess.
Buy, Rent or Skip?: Skip