Monday, April 11, 2016

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Film: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Stars: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders
Director: Orson Welles
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

I love Orson Welles.  Like L-O-V-E Orson Welles.  It's a little bit of a stretched love, because like most actors he went through stages of his career where, whether for love of money or perhaps (in Welles' case) a Henry VIII-style feast, he made a lot of crap late in his career, with films like Butterfly (the one that Pia Zadora famously bought her Golden Globe for) and The Transformers: The Movie (the 1986 animated film where he played Unicron).  It wasn't quite a Nicolas Cage-style run, but it's still something that has tested my loyalty.  Still, when Welles is at the top of his game, he's pretty much unbeatable, and he generally was when he directed himself, The Lady from Shanghai being no exception.

(Spoilers Ahead) David Kehr once proclaimed The Lady from Shanghai the "weirdest great movie ever made," and he's more than right.  Made when Welles was starting to wander into the wilderness (not quite Touch of Evil, but certainly not the latitude he received with Citizen Kane), it starred his then-wife Rita Hayworth, whom Welles was obsessed with and involved in a deeply tumultuous relationship, as a blonde named Elsa married to a defense attorney called Arthur Bannister (Sloane).  Welles' Irish sailor Michael O'Hara becomes involves with the two, and eventually falls madly in love with Elsa.

The film's plot is hard to follow, so put down the cell phone (I occasionally read about a movie while watching it on a Saturday night, but with this picture that was clearly impossible).  Eventually Michael becomes involves in a nasty bit of business where he is tricked into pretending to kill a man that actually ends up dead, with Michael having already signed a confession to the fake murder.  The film progresses with Michael, on trial and being defended by the man whose wife he's sleeping with, and slowly Arthur finds out and starts to tank the case in order to make sure that Michael ends up getting the chair.  The film ends with it being revealed that Elsa, not Arthur, had set up Michael in order to get her husband's money, and with Elsa and Arthur dying in a house of mirrors, Michael is heartbroken but likely to be exonerated in the process.

The film initially received mixed reviews, with people calling the movie rambling and discombobulated, but it's since been rescued by critics as it should have, as the picture itself is divine.  The acting between Welles, Hayworth, Sloane, and a maniacal Glenn Anders (even in a strong year for Supporting Actor at the Oscars there's no excuse for missing this brilliant, intensely-creepy performance), is sensational.  It's like something plucked out of a David Lynch film-you half expect Dean Stockwell to be singing Roy Orbison in the background of some of his scenes.  Hayworth had just finished her iconic work in Gilda, but is just as superb here, playing a darkened, deadly femme fatale using the world in a way only one with intense beauty can.  Honestly-how is Rita Hayworth not more widely-celebrated by cinephiles considering how damn good she is in both of these pictures?  Welles is almost her equal (she's better), as the bumbling, occasionally obtuse but still sharp Michael, blinded rarely by greed but certainly by lust.

The script is plum-full of quotable lines: "Everybody is somebody's fool," "New York is not as big a city as it pretends to be," and best of all "Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her...maybe I'll die trying."  It's pretty obvious with bon mots like that that Welles himself wrote the film, and his direction is classic too.  The camerawork is elegant, working unexpected angles and finding beauty in nearly every frame, particularly the outdoors shots on the yacht where you can almost feel the scorched sun on your face as you watch, and the climactic scene in the mirror maze is appropriately iconic and borrowed-from.  All-in-all, this is one of the best detective noir films I've seen, and that's coming from someone who has seen pretty much all of them.

Those are my thoughts on this gem of a film (a must if you haven't already).  What about yours?  Do you also have a qualified love of Orson Welles?  Why didn't Rita Hayworth make more movies like this and Gilda?  And does anyone else see Glenn Anders in their nightmares?  Share your thoughts below!

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