The Lady from Shanghai ★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 12: Orson Welles

The more I learn about Orson Welles as part of this Film School Dropout challenge, the more I realize that the truth about him as a person is a complicated mix of what his fans and his critics have had to say about him over the years. Because yes, as academic apologists have asserted long after the fact, Welles was undoubtedly a genius whose undoctored work was years ahead of its time, unfairly chopped apart afterwards by studio hacks who didn't get what he was going for (see my review of The Magnificent Ambersons from the beginning of this week for more); but yes, it's also a fact that Welles' arrogance, holier-than-thou attitude, and total lack of regard for things like budgets and schedules didn't do him any favors, and that the people in charge of the millions of dollars he was blithely spending had every right to be alarmed and to try to rein him in before he forced them into bankruptcy (which he very nearly actually did to RKO, for one good example). We see all of this complexity on display, then, in his fourth-ever film, the bizarre noir The Lady from Shanghai which was filmed in 1946 but not released until 1947 because of studio complications, what a freaking surprise.

The movie came about, actually, because of a runaway Welles project in an entirely different medium; namely, with his Hollywood career going only so-so at this point, he still had one foot in the world of live theater where he began, and had recently mounted a wry and absurdist new production of Around the World in 80 Days which quickly found its budget ballooning out of control, suddenly with the need for $50,000 in cash on the very day of its opening in order to get their costumes unlocked from a warehouse where a POed costume company was keeping them hostage. This inspired a desperate call to Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, where in exchange for wiring the money that afternoon Welles promised to write and direct for no additional money a quick and cheap genre thriller just like the successful noir The Stranger which he had just finished for International Pictures (which to remind you actually grossed three times its budget, making it Welles' first-ever box-office hit); according to apocrypha, when Cohn asked Welles what thriller he had in mind, Welles glanced around the room where he was making the phone call, noticed that the secretary was reading Sherwood King's If I Die Before I Wake, and off-the cuff suggested it, although the daughter of assistant director William Castle (yes, that William Castle) insisted that it was Castle himself who had been trying to make Before I Wake for years, asked Welles to pitch it to Columbia on his behalf, then watched dismayed while Welles not only took all the credit but claimed to have just pulled the idea out of his ass one day.

Of course, with this being Welles, you can take a pretty good guess what happened: the budget skyrocketed; the production went over schedule; Welles insisted on cutting and bleaching star (and then-wife) Rita Hayworth's famously long and dark hair; he also insisted on renting Errol Flynn's yacht to use as the movie's main boat setting, at $1,500 a day and with an agreement that they couldn't shoot unless Flynn was on set to supervise, leading to massive delays since Flynn was by this point in the middle of his "professional drunk" years; Welles decided to make the entire production a cutting-edge example of extreme location shooting; and after all that, at the end he delivered a challenging, experimental art-house film (one with no close-ups, exclusively long takes of every scene, no expository explanation of what was going on, and an infamously head-tripping twenty-minute music-free finale set in a Chinese amusement park), essentially the exact opposite of the "cheap and quick crowdpleaser" he promised Cohn when Cohn went to the trouble of couriering a million bucks in cash in today's money on a moment's notice from Los Angeles to New York in a single afternoon. And so Cohn did what so many studio executives did when dealing with Welles back in the day -- he took ownership over the raw footage, hired a new editor who cut literally an hour out of Welles' original print, hired a new director who went back in and filmed a bunch of close-ups to cut back into the film, and hired a new writer to insert a bunch of voiceover narration actually explaining what the hell is going on in this convoluted, globe-trotting murder caper. And the result was a jumbled disaster, still to this day considered by many to be the worst film Welles ever made, with the blame directly shifted to his shoulders since it was so easy to make him a scapegoat by that point.

So who's at fault in this situation? On the one hand, undeniably we lost what sounds like was an amazing film when Welles finished his version, one of a whole string of early movies that each likely would've been on par with Citizen Kane itself in terms of innovation and quality, if these early pictures hadn't then been butchered by the money people afterwards because they didn't trust their audiences to "get it." But on the other hand, Welles clearly manipulated Cohn into giving him a massive amount of money at a point when he was desperate for it, then didn't even bother pretending to give him back what he had promised for it in return; and if I had just blown a million bucks based on a single phone call when some charming BS artist had said, "Hey, Harry baby, trust me!," I would've been pissed to the point of completely changing the finished film too, which after all he was only changing back into the quickie, unchallenging B-pic Welles had promised him in the first place. Whatever the case, though, it resulted in this wonderfully strange hybrid of a film, part fine-art and part WTF, in which you can clearly see Welles' beautifully languid, location-based intentions in every scene, which are now interspersed with bizarrely extreme close-ups and acting that treads the fine line between David-Lynch surrealism and laugh-out-loud self-parody. Very clearly in the tradition of film noir, but with results that are both way less and way more than the typical noir, The Lady from Shanghai is a beautifully flawed mess, a production whose accidental twists and turns produced a strangely riveting viewing experience that you couldn't have made on purpose no matter how hard you tried; and that says a lot about Welles, here long after the point where anything can be done about how his career turned out, that even his projects that turned into clusterfucks produced finished movies that are always compelling and watchable.

Coming next, we skip forward in Welles' career quite a bit, all the way to The Immortal Story from twenty years later, when the director had clearly used up every bit of boy-genius cache he had formerly had in Hollywood, now a 300-pound recluse whose biggest projects were being made for European television.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews