Monday, June 21, 2010

Losing Control to "The Lady from Shanghai"

The following review is a collaboration between Rick and Sark.
After saving a beautiful woman from three would-be attackers, Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) is offered a job by the woman, Elsa (Rita Hayworth). Although apparently disappointed that she is married to a prominent defense attorney, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), Michael agrees to pilot her husband's yacht. At sea, Michael not only witnesses the rather unusual relationship between husband and wife, he also meets Bannister's law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby makes a peculiar offer: the lawyer is planning on faking his death, and he wants Michael to confess to the "murder," so that Grisby can collect the insurance reimbursement. Michael agrees, because by this time, he and Elsa have started an illicit affair, and he needs the money so that they can leave together. The stage is set for various double crossings and multiple plot twists!
The Lady from Shanghai is clearly a film about control, or the lack thereof. From the beginning, it seems, Elsa is controlling Michael. She draws him in with her beauty, and although he initially appears upset that Elsa is married, Michael still accepts the job offered by Mr. Bannister. Does he need to money? Perhaps. But the audience (and Elsa) knows why he really wanted to go sailing. Elsa controls everyone, and by extension, she controls everything. Elsa manipulates all three men and has them playing against one another. For example, one could maintain that she kissed Michael knowing fully well that Grisby would see them. One of the movie's best lines belongs to Elsa (when first offering the job to Michael): "I'll make it worth your while." This is the essence of Elsa. Would a man do something he didn't want to simply because she asked him to do it? Most likely, yes. And there's absolutely no question as to what she's referring, by the breathy and seductive manner in which she speaks the line.
Elsa even controls the camera. One scene in particular is a great example of her visual control. Elsa is lying on the ship's deck with Grisby sitting nearby, and Bannister is discussing money with Michael. While Bannister is talking, the shot lingers on Elsa as she hands her cigarette to Grisby and asks him to light it (for the audience, her dialogue dominates and momentarily overrides Bannister). Another shot shows Michael lighting the cigarette, and then a crane shot follows the smoldering cigarette from Grisby to Elsa, who indifferently puffs away. Michael desires Elsa, Bannister is speaking about money and happiness but seems to be alluding to his beautiful wife, and retrospectively, it's known that Grisby is planning on killing Bannister for Elsa. Three men -- three fools -- all controlled by the magnetic woman dreamily staring at the sky. Likewise, the shots of Elsa lying on the deck and posing on the rocks are seductive images. Grisby spies on her, and Michael watches her, too. The two men cannot look away.
The theme of "control" is intriguing. Welles wrote the screenplay (with a small credit for the story and novel), produced, and directed. He also famously had his wife cut and dye her trademark red hair. So while Hayworth's character was in total control on the screen, Welles wielded it behind the scenes -- until the studio took it away. Welles had trouble maintaining control of his films after Citizen Kane (1941). The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was completely recut without his consent, as was The Lady from Shanghai. Welles' original cut was reportedly 150 minutes, so that means there's an hour of missing footage. The studio reeling Welles in was quite possibly beneficial, as it is difficult to imagine the film at two hours, let alone in excess of that. As Alfred Hitchcock once said: "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
Welles' films always benefit from rich characters, and The Lady from Shanghai is no exception. Ironically, the most sympathetic character may be Bannister. He knows Elsa is bad (he starts to tell the story of how they met... but cuts it short) and know that he's under her control. He's even willing to pimp for her; isn't that what he's doing when he goes to the docks to hire Michael? He's willing to let her cheat on him, as evidenced by stating that he doesn't mind that Michael loves her (and he likely means "love" in the physical sense). All he asks is that she stay with him, which makes him sympathetic or pathetic or both?

Then again, it's a fairly sad lot of people from which to find sympathy. Bannister seems to accept things the way they are, and he deals with life as it comes along. This is in contrast to Michael, who constantly looks ahead, hoping for everything to turn out one way but knowing it'll likely go somewhere else. I think the most unsympathetic person might be Grisby. Any type of control he has or thinks he has is highly evident, because he acts in the manner of a child, especially in the scene with Michael on the boat and Elsa is on the rocks. He also sweats incessantly, so perhaps Welles wanted the audience to view him as the "greasy" character. But, at the very least, Grisby is honest with himself. Michael wants Elsa, but he has to find excuses to be with her. Elsa would lie in a blink if it meant self-preservation. Grisby is transparent: he is greedy, he is jealous of Michael, and he wants Elsa, too. He doesn't try to hide his intentions or present himself as anything other than the greasy weasel that he is.
Orson Welles was perhaps a better director than actor. While he's very good in Touch of Evil (1958), he was too exaggerated as the evil cop, and even in Citizen Kane, he hams it up. Although, he was always theatrical because of his work on radio, in which voice is the most important tool (it's similar to the theatre, where an actor has to overdo it a bit because he/she has to project the voice). Welles is sometimes too theatrical, but Michael in Shanghai is underplayed to great effect. Michael is a brooding man and an emotional punching bag. With a lack of presence, he's really only there for Elsa to unload upon. In short, he's the complete opposite of other Welles' characters, like Quinlan in Touch of Evil and Charles Foster Kane. Rita Hayworth gives a smashing, memorable performance, and she and Welles are complemented by the supporting cast, especially Sloane (who played an equally cynical employer in 1956's Patterns, scripted by Twilight Zone creator/narrator Rod Serling).

Though it's easy to see why The Lady from Shanghai is a cult film, it's undoubtedly flawed. Even at 90 minutes, it's an indulgent film, sometimes quirky just for the sake of it -- such as the over-the-top courtroom scene with Bannister cross-examining himself. Welles gives himself the best dialogue, though everyone has a memorable line or two. Technically, it alternates between shoddy (some of the rear screen shots) and dazzling (the location scenes in San Francisco, the incredible mirror hall climax). But one thing is clear: it's not an easy film to forget!


  1. Really interesting and insightful review, Sark and Rick. It's an odd movie, not one of my favorites, but certainly not to be ignored in the film noir genre. I always have thought Rita Hayworth to be one of the most beautiful women on screen, but I think Welles made a big mistake changing her look the way he did. It struck me as just an attention-getter, did not really flatter her or make much difference in the character, and it pulled my focus off the movie and into the personal Svengali-type marriage they had off-screen.

    Welles was always a dominant figure in every project he ever did and yes, could be hammy. But I think he is a great actor. Kane had to be larger than life, and Welles fit that to a T. I think his best acting job actually was "Jane Eyre" with Joan Fontaine. His Rochester has never been topped, in my opinion, by any other version. I have to admit, although I may be crucified by other film noir lovers, that I absolutely HATED Touch of Evil. Welles was gross, Charlton Heston silly as a Mexican, and Janet Leigh mainly stood around holding a coat to cover her broken arm. Very overrated, to me.

    I really enjoyed your article!

  2. Becky, I completely agree with you as to the reasons Welles had Hayworth make such a drastic change with her hair. I'm sure some people went to see the film just to see her new hairstyle! But I also think that Rita Hayworth was one of the most beautiful women of all time, and I think she's just as beautiful with short blonde hair as red hair. Honestly, she could've been bald and still would have been as stunning as ever.

    And I truly believe she was an outstanding actress. Every time I watch her in a film, I admit that it takes a few moments to get past the fact that she's so gorgeous. But then I can enjoy her performance. I really like her in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.

    And don't worry. You won't be "crucified" for your animosity of TOUCH OF EVIL. I love to hear people's differing opinions, especially when someone either dislikes a very popular film or likes a box office bomb.

  3. Sark and Rick, this is a great post. I agree that Bannister may be the most sympathetic character in an unusual cast of characters.
    Like "Double Indemnity" we see the lengths to which gullible men are willing to go for beautiful women.

    Becky, I also thought Orson Welles shone as Mr. Rochester. And I prefer the gorgeous Ms. Hayworth with her stunning red tresses, too.

    I especially enjoy the Hall of Mirrors sequence. I think Bruce Lee did, too, in "Enter the Dragon."

  4. This is an interesting film. I really enjoyed reading your insights into it. Like Toto, my favorite part of the movie is at the end with the Hall of Mirrors sequence. This was shot and edited very cleverly and when I think--one of the standouts in Welles career. I rank it close to the opening sequence in Tocuh of Evil, which I think might be his best.

  5. Something strange happened with the end of my commentt. I meant to say that I think it was one of the standout seqeuences in Welles' career, alongside the opening sequence in Touch of Evil.

  6. Kim, you do have a good point about that wonderful one-shot opening sequence in Touch of Evil. I will give it that, just to show that I am so generous (and humble).

  7. Red hair, blonde hair, blue hair...Rita would look great with any hair color. I always had trouble with that contention that blonde hair hurt her career. As to where LADY fits in the Welles ouevre, I rank it with THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS at the top of the list. It's quirky, entertaining, and thematically rich!

  8. Enjoyed the post! FYI, retweeted it here:

  9. Rick and Sark, I really enjoyed reading your review! At first I did not care much for this movie. But, after a couple of viewings, I grew to love this film. I found it very interesting that the yacht on which the movie takes place belonged in real life as the "Zaca" to Errol Flynn. Flynn skippered the Zaca between takes, and he can be spotted in the background in a scene outside a cantina. Also, Errol Flynn's, pet dachshund is seen in the yacht scenes.

  10. Thanks for your post! ClassicBecky makes an interesting point about Welles' control of Hayworth and having her hair dyed as if to prove his control over her. Some viewers interpret the movie as a portrait of their marriage, but it seems Welles switched the roles in the film. I must mention one of my favorite scenes, the assignation in the aquarium, when Michael & Elsa kiss in front of a tank filled with, as I recall, squid and octopi - a rather nasty comment on their romance...