Friday, September 30, 2011

Orson Welles | The Lady from Shanghai

by Douglas Messerli

Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King (writer), William Castle, Charles Lederer, and Fletcher Markle (uncredited writers), Orson Welles (director) The Lady from Shanghai / 1947

After a very pleasant dinner at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Ray's restaurant, and sitting for a hour transported in time by Christian Maclay's marvelous The Clock, I attended a showing at the Bing Auditorium of Orson Welles' film noir The Lady from Shanghai.

I had seen this film several times years earlier, particularly when I taught as a teaching assistant in film at the University of Maryland, where then-professor Joe Miller included the Welles film in his course. I remember it well for its marvelous images—clearly the reason why Miller taught it, since he eschewed all talk of story in favor of camera techniques—but I could never quite figure out the story, or, at least, the motivations of the characters for their complex maneuvers in trying to outwit and/or destroy one another.

Let me try quickly to get that lumbering beast of burden out of the way, so that I can focus better on the film's achievements and failures.

A somewhat "dumb" Irish seamen, Michael O'Hara (Welles, speaking in a brogue I am sure has never been heard anywhere in Ireland) accidentally encounters a beautiful blonde (the usually red-haired Rita Hayworth, married at the time to Welles) in Central Park. As her coach passes, he is struck by her beauty and is only please to come to aid a few minutes later when hooligans attempt to overtake her coach.

The woman, Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister, is married to the famous defense attorney, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a mix of a deformed and bitter old man and a rather witty and world-weary figure, who immediately recognizes the impact of having a young handsome man at her side. How Elsa and Arthur have ever come to marry is unclear, but we suspect both her greed and desire for money and blackmail, perhaps, on his part have helped in bringing them together. Her boredom and unhappiness in the relationship is all too apparent.

The Bannisters, newly arrived in New York, on their way from Shanghai (why they have been in Shanghai is never fully explained) to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. One suspects that the trip was added in Sherwood King's novel, on which this film was based, simply as an exotic element. But, in any event, it serves its purpose when Elsa insists that Michael sign on their yacht as a seaman.
Almost from the moment he signs—an act he does both in reality and symbolically several times in this story—the travelers are joined by Bannister's law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders). As Michael goes about his daily duties, he is distracted by the appearance and obvious flirtations of Elsa, and before the long the two have fallen for each other—if love in this dark prism of events can be described so romantically. Perhaps it would be more suitable to say they have determined to play out the flirtations, despite the observing eyes of Elsa's husband. As Michael says of himself: "When I start out to make a fool of myself there's very little can stop me."

Obviously, we guess some terrible result will come of their relationship. Yet the story moves in another direction. George Grisby, cornering Michael, proposes that the young seaman "murder" him in a plot wherein he will fake his death to collect the insurance money. He promises Michael $5,000—a sufficient amount for him to run off with Elsa—assuring him that, since he will still be alive and there will be no corpse, Michael cannot be held for murder. The rub is that Michael must sign a confession that he has committed the act.

Although we might find the plot to this point a bit unbelievable, we can still follow it's flimsy logic. But here is where we begin to digress, where the story factures at several points, leading us into cul-de-sacs that seem to trap us in plot. As the yacht reaches San Francisco, we discover that a private investigator, Sydney Broome, has been following Elsa for her husband (remember him?). Broome gets wind of Grisby's plan, realizing that he is actually intending to kill Bannister and to frame Michael for Bannister's murder with the confession in hand. Michael, unaware of these twists, watches Grisby, as planned, take off in a motorboat, and shoots a gun in the air to draw attention to himself. But, in fact, Grisby has discovered that Broome is on to him, shooting the detective and leaving him for dead.

What we don't yet know is that Broome, still surviving, has called Elsa for help, warning her of Grisby's intention to kill her husband. Michael, meanwhile, calls Elsa, startled to find Broome's voice at the other end, warning him, in his last words, of Grisby's plot to implicate him in Bannister's murder.

Michael, who by this time has become an comical aphorist, recognizes that "Everybody is somebody's fool," yet clumsily rushes off the Bannister's office, just in time to see the police removing Grisby's body from the place. Confession in hand, the police arrest Michael as the killer.

Ironically—and clearly perversely—Bannister undertakes the defense for Michael, but can hardly be a fair representative, discovering as the trial moves forward, just how involved Michael and Elsa had been. He suggests Michael plead justifiable homicide, given all the evidence, although Bannister himself clearly knows who the real murderer is.

Trapped by these absurd situations, Michael, feigning suicide, is able to escape the courtroom with Elsa following, arranging with her Chinese friends for Michael to hide out in a theater in Chinatown. But the friends drug Michael, taking him to an abandoned funhouse, where as he awakens to find a gun-toting Elsa within the maze of mirrors and distorting machines of reflection, he gradually perceives that it is she who has killed Grisby, that she and Grisby had been planning to murder Bannister and frame Michael for the crime. As Michael quips, "It's a bright, guilty world."

The film ends in a phantasmagoric shootout in the hall of mirrors, where shot after shot is fired at images of each other, most mistakenly, some hitting home, resulting with the death of both Elsa and her husband.

The surviving seaman trundles off to obscurity again, leaving a trail of further aphorisms in the space behind him: "The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so I guess I'll concentrate on that." "Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying."

What is obvious even as I was regurgitating the above story is that the twists and turns of the plot are far too complex for the 87 minutes of the film. In fact, when Welles delivered the finished product to Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, the executive so detested the film that he offered anyone $1,000 to succinctly explain the story to him. Certainly his editors did not help to clarify the situation by cutting an hour from Welles original.

Most critics and even admirers, accordingly, have seriously faulted this film—whether they argue it was director's or the studio's doing—that the film is narratively incoherent, despite its often wonderful cinematic images. But then, I've never been able to coherently speak about the plot of The Big Sleep either. In both cases, it seems to me, the directors (Hawks in the The Big Sleep) purposely leave their baggy tales full of missing links, distortions, false clues, and outright disjunctions to reiterate the dark, foggy world which their characters inhabit. In such a immoral world as The Lady from Shanghai, in which every single character finds some way they can use or abuse the guileless Michael, there can be no straight lines, all is relative.

One by one each of the characters, except Michael, speak in a kind of double language, in sentences that turn in on each other, taking meaning, like a snake swallowing its own tail, away from rational comprehension. As Bannister relates to his wife late in the film, "Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us." Or, as he tells Michael early on "You've been traveling around the world too much to find out anything about it." Or as George Grisby tells Michael as he plots his own death: "This is going to be murder and it's going to be legal."

Michael might easily claim, as does a witness to Broome's death: "I don't speak their language, see..." As Elsa tells him "I told you, you know nothing about wickedness."

Welles' strong images merely reiterate this play of language, doubling up hundreds of figures, presenting reality through distorting positioning of his actors and camera, cutting away so quickly the viewer is not quite sure of what he has just seen, surveying landscapes which one can barely see through (note Michael rushing past the window above or the multi-mirrored images at the amusement park).

Accordingly, while the language of this film (both its spoken words and its cinematic images) very much matters, the Macguffin, as Hitchcock would call it, hardly matters at all, is almost an after-the-fact explanation for the vagaries of the double-crossing characters.
Perfect this movie is not. I might say that there is a sort of lumbering quality to all of Welles' films, even his best. But they are certainly fun to watch.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2011
Copyright (c)2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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