Poor, poor Orson Welles.
When Welles first started making movies in the 1940s, the studios gave him total creative control over his work. The result was “Citizen Kane,” often regarded as the greatest movie ever made.
The problem was that Welles couldn’t get enough of this creative freedom, and demanded it for nearly every movie he would make after it. Studios never gave Welles that kind of freedom again, and many would argue that his work suffered because of it. For example, RKO Studios demanded that Welles do an entirely new ending to the film he made after Kane, “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Another would be Universal Studios reediting what Welles thought was his masterpiece, “Touch Of Evil.”
I bring this up because his 1947 film, “The Lady From Shanghai” is another example of that lack of creative control. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, directors and producers don’t get nearly as much freedom as we like to think. The heads of the studios will ultimately have the final word on a film, even if it’s nothing like what the director wants.
In the case of “The Lady from Shanghai,” producer Harry Cohn was desperate to make a movie with Orson Welles. So much so that he was willing to give Welles anything he wanted, including near total control over the movie, including directing, writing, producing and even starring. The result is a mess of a movie with an incoherent story, lousy pacing and terrible editing.
“I’ll pay a thousand dollars to anyone who can explain the story to me,” said Cohn.
The film follows Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Welles), who has become smitten with the lovely Rosalie Bannister (Rita Hayworth). The only problem is that she’s married to the best criminal lawyer in the land, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). After Michael saves Rosalie from being attacked, Arthur takes a liking to the Irishman and decides to hire him as a boat-hand on his yacht.
As tension develops between Rosalie and Michael, Arthur’s coworker George Grisby (Glenn Anders) joins them on their voyage from New York to San Francisco. Grisby takes a liking to Michael after he learns that O’Hara killed a man many years ago. It’s at this point that Grisby decides to recruit Michael into his plan to fake his own death and disappear. As the plan progresses, it’s revealed that there’s more people in on this than Michael originally thought.
If there’s one thing wrong with this film, it’s the story and the lack of focus or goal. It meanders from plot point to plot point with no regard to human life. There are certainly big events going on, but most people won’t know how one event ties into another. Some events seem to even happen at random, leaving the audience confused as to what the hell just happened.
Probably the biggest indication of this is when Michael thinks he has figured out everything about what’s going on, and we get this big exposition dump through Michael’s narration about the plans of the villain. This narration falls victim to the classic problem with movies: Show, don’t tell. Film is a visual medium, and anything that can be done visually should be done in that manner. Never tell how something happens, show it instead. Not to mention, most of the narration seems like guess work by Michael.
If that narration had been removed from the film, it probably wouldn’t have effected the story and events of the film at all. That way, at least the audience would be less confused.
That’s how convoluted this story is, people. The exposition that explains everything about the motivation of our characters is entirely irrelevant.
Though if I did have to give the movie credit for anything, it would be the cinematography and would nightmarishly beautiful the film looks. The camera angles, the lighting and use of shadow throughout is classic Welles and is used to great effect in this film. It really does help to set the mood of the piece and build atmosphere where nothing else does. There’s a scene in an aquarium where that shows just how small and insignificant these characters look next these giant fish and sea creatures, especially when their faces are cast in shadow.
It’s hard to describe some of the main performances, since in the case of Welles and Hayworth, they’re so far removed from the traditional roles they play. Welles has an Irish accent the entire movie (playing a little more into the whole nightmare setting) while playing this tough confident guy and feels at ends with Charles Foster Kane. Rita Hayworth, on the other hand, has had her hair cut short and dyed blonde (supposedly done by Welles himself) and is playing the femme fatale that every film noir must have. To be fair, she does a convincing job at that role, as does Welles, so I guess there’s nothing to complain about in that regard.
Also, Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders both do a fantastic job at the roles they’ve been given. With Sloane coming off as both powerful in his lawyer role, but helpless by being on crutches. Anders was creepy, but was still goal-oriented and intent on having some fun with his character.
Overall though, I felt like “The Lady From Shanghai” was a rather forgettable film, in that with no focus or traction from scene to scene, events just go by without seeming to have any significance. There’s much to be admired in the cinematography, performances and the ambition of Orson Welles, but that lack of solid story takes away from that.
If “The Lady From Shanghai” is an example of giving the filmmakers near total creative control, then maybe it’s a good thing that studios don’t allow that very often.
Final Grade: C