Orson Welles is a mess. After directing what is widely understood to be the greatest (or second greatest) movie of all time, Citizen Kane (1941), Welles would take part in hundreds of productions. He directed dozens of short films, but only six or seven features to recommend themselves. If Welles worked with a studio, it would heavily edit his films, which pushed him to work piecemeal, taking acting pay checks to finance his personal material. This took him to and from theater and radio, Europe and Latin America, and in and out of penury. It seems like every film but Citizen Kane has a mythological “original cut” or “Welles’s vision” that would, presumably, be a spectacular triumph. Of the three non-Kane films I’ve seen directed by Welles, only Touch of Evil (1958) strikes me as sane work. The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and The Stranger (1946) are rough. The Stranger is so rough that I wouldn’t recommend it to any civilian, but The Lady from Shanghai is marginally better. The film noir spirit brings a comic element conspicuously absent from The Stranger‘s thrills.
Irish sailor, Michael O’Hara (Welles), sees a beautiful blonde, Elsa (Rita Hayworth), taking a carriage ride through Central Park. After a brief interaction, she rides off, but falls into trouble in the form of three street toughs who are going to rob her (or worse). O’Hara deftly swats them away and wins her affection. She asks him to join her on her yacht, but he refuses. Her husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the best criminal lawyer there is, tries to talk O’Hara into joining their voyage, and still he refuses. But when he brings Bannister’s drunken self back to the yacht, he gives in and joins the voyage. Later, they meet Bannister’s partner, the deranged George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who approaches O’Hara with a plan for enough money to run away with (taking whom he pleases). Then things start to get a little hairy.
Welles could usually be counted on for his skills as an actor. More accurately, he could be relied upon for the silky personality he brought to all non-obese roles. In The Lady from Shanghai, Welles takes on the most ludicrous leprechaun-inspired Irish accent I’ve heard from a celebrated actor. This choice would have cost the film a whole star, if I gave out any stars. Rita Hayworth is the only one that isn’t performing with insanity as a primary motive. She’s a woman with a past and that’s enough. Glenn Anders is simply too ridiculous, using his own artificial accent of the time with a touch of a high pitched purr to it. Insult to injury, the film was re-dubbed (presumably for technical reasons) without much interest in lip-syncing.
The plot is pretty elaborate, almost epic, before it’s final act resolves itself in a rather traditional film noir, bleak ending. It’s almost too much, suggesting that a rewrite might have tightened up the story a little. They take the trip, then there’s the plan gone agley, then a trial, then the final showdown. According to Peter Bogdanovich, who is interviewed on the DVD, the original cut of the film was an hour longer. That would probably be an even better film. Besides Welles’s ridiculous accent, the dominant impression of the film is a feeling of being rushed. The actors run over each other with the dialogue as they do in the theater.
Insofar as camerawork is concerned, there’s quite a few interesting moments. The final showdown, set in a deserted amusement park complete with a hall of mirrors. Bogdanovich recounts a conversation he had with Welles. (I’m paraphrasing) “Every time I ask you about a strange camera angle, you always say ‘it looked better that way’, why is that? Welles replied with that joke ‘A man isn’t feeling well and he goes to the doctor and the doctor says to tell him what he does from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed and the man says “Well, I wake up and I vomit and-” and the doctor stops him and says “Wait. You vomit every morning when you wake up?” and the man says “Of course, doesn’t everybody?”‘” Some people find Welles’s vomiting to be classic. I think it can be interesting, but I’m more interested in the contents.
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