The Lady From Shanhai – Orson Welles (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai is a 1947 film noir directed by Orson Welles and starring Welles, his estranged wife Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane. It is based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King.

n the summer of 1946, Welles was directing a musical stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days, with a comedic and ironic rewriting of the Jules Verne novel by Welles, incidental music and songs by Cole Porter, and production by Mike Todd, who would later produce the successful film version with David Niven.

When Todd pulled out from the lavish and expensive production, Welles financed it. When he ran out of money and urgently needed $55,000 to release costumes which were being held, he convinced Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn to send him the money to continue the show and in exchange Welles promised to write, produce, direct and star in a film for Cohn for no further fee. As Welles tells it, on the spur of the moment, he suggested the film be based on the book a girl in the theatre box office happened to be reading at the time he was calling Cohn, which Welles had never read.However, according to the daughter of William Castle, it was her father who had purchased the film adaptation rights for the novel and who then asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, with Castle hoping to receive the directoral assignment himself. She described her father as greatly respecting Welles’ talents, but feeling nonetheless disappointed at being relegated to serve merely as Welles’ assistant director on the film.

The Lady from Shanghai was filmed in late 1946, finished in early 1947 and released in the U.S. on June 9, 1948. Cohn disliked Welles’s rough-cut, particularly what he considered to be a confusing plot and lack of close-ups, and was not in sympathy with Welles’s Brechtian use of irony and black comedy, especially in a farcical courtroom scene. Release was delayed due to Cohn ordering extensive editing and re-shoots by his assistants at Columbia, who insisted on cutting about an hour from Welles’s final cut. Welles was appalled at the musical score and particularly aggrieved by the cuts to the climactic confrontation scene in an amusement park funhouse at the end of the film. Intended as a climactic tour-de-force of editing and production design, the scene was cut to fewer than three minutes out of an intended running time of twenty. As with many of Welles’s films over which he did not have control over the final cut, the missing footage has not been found and is presumed to have been destroyed. Surviving production stills show elaborate and expensive sets built for the sequence which were entirely cut from the film.

Welles cast his wife Rita Hayworth as Elsa and caused controversy when he made her cut her famous long red hair and bleach it blonde for the role.

The film was considered a disaster in America at the time of its release, though the closing shootout in a hall of mirrors has since become one of the touchstones of film noir. Not long after release, Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce.

Reviews of the film were mixed. Variety magazine found the script wordy and noted that the “rambling style used by Orson Welles has occasional flashes of imagination, particularly in the tricky backgrounds he uses to unfold the yarn, but effects, while good on their own, are distracting to the murder plot.”

A more recent Time Out Film Guide review states that Welles simply didn’t care enough to make the narrative seamless: “the principal pleasure of The Lady from Shanghai is its tongue-in-cheek approach to story-telling.” One recent book on Film Noir praises the film for its pervasive atmosphere of malaise and its impressive, extraordinary technical mastery.

Although The Lady From Shanghai was acclaimed in Europe, it was not embraced in the U.S. until several decades later. Influential modern critics including David Kehr have subsequently declared it a masterpiece, with Kehr calling it “the weirdest great movie ever made.”

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