Orson Welles Season: The Problem with The Lady from Shanghai
Last week, I asked whether or not Citizen Kane was still the greatest film ever made. The simple answer was yes and, even today, it still stands out as one of Orson Welles’ greatest cinematic achievements. This week however, I’m taking a look back at one of his most divisive films, The Lady from Shanghai, which is littered with problems and occasional glimpses of greatness.
A film noir, Welles stars as Michael O’Hara, a seamen who becomes infatuated by the beautiful Elsa Bannister – the wife of a big shot lawyer. When he’s invited to work on the couple’s yacht, as it cruises down the Panama Canal, he becomes embroiled in a sinister murder plot.
It’s pretty standard, noirish fare which, with Welles at the helm, should have been something truly special. Yet, even though the film’s stature has grown enormously over the years, it is undeniably flawed, for a number of reasons.
To get an idea of why it doesn’t work, you need only look at the productions very beginnings. In truth, there are a number of contradicting stories about how The Lady from Shanghai came to be, but it’s Orson Welles’ own account that is often credited as the truth.
It was 1946 and Welles was on the middle of directing a stage musical of Around the World in 80 Days. Running out of money and in desperate need of cash, Welles claims that he approached Harry Cohn – the president of Coloumbia Pictures at the time – with the offer to write, direct and produce a film for him, providing he wired over $55,000 immediately.
Rumour has it that even the choice of project was decided on a whim, as Welles decided that it be an adaptation of the book that a girl in the theatre box office, was currently reading.
The fact that the film’s production stemmed from desperation, as opposed to creativity and passion, would suggest it was doomed to fail from the very beginning – but when you watch the film, it’s obvious to see that effort, in terms of set design and technical ingenuity, has been put in.
Arguably, it’s the film’s asthetic that is its saving grace. The dreamlike (or is that nightmarish?) finale, set within the fun house at a fairground, is visually striking – and the final shoot out in the hall of mirrors, is a brilliant piece of good looking cinema. It’s just a shame that the majority of everything before it is a bit of a mess.
The Lady from Shanghai’s biggest problem, at least in my opinion, is the bizzare first half, which spans the course of the cruise. Described by Orson’s character, Michael, as “rich, rare and strange”, he’s certainly right about the strange part.
Nonsensical dialogue – Welle’s brilliant monologue about sharks aside – intercut with voyeuristic shots of Rita Hayworth in her swimwear makes for baffling viewing; it’s this that really lets the whole film down.
Arguably, Orson Welles isn’t entirely to blame for this, with the studio calling for extensive re-shoots after Cohn wasn’t happy with Welles’ rough cut. Whilst Welles was trying to do something different with the project, interference from the studio resulted in close up shots being added in – particularly of Hayworth – and over an hours worth of material being cut.
The struggle between artist and studio – something that would become a regular occurance during Orson’s career – is plain to see and, ultimately, has a detrimental effect on the picture.
All things considered, it’s no wonder that The Lady from Shanghai is so problematic. But, despite its flaws, it still remains a fascinating piece of cinema that hints toward something much richer; much deeper.
If Welles has been left to his own devices, it could very well have been a masterpiece, yet we’ll never know. It might not be my favourite of his works, but it is one of his most intriguing.