Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)
               The Lady From Shanghai's more inconsistent elements become more understandable once you know a bit of history behind the film. An early-ish film noir, it was one of Orson Welles' several troubled projects following Citizen Kane. And, despite his pedigree, the studio yanked control of his original, two hour-plus cut and hacked it down to just short of 90 minutes. Despite shuffling any coherence or pacing it might have had, what was impossible to destroy was the daring camera work — extreme close ups, unnerving dutch angles and his always masterful framing of contrast and shadow.

Welles also wrote the film, and starred as a tough Irish veteran from the Franco wars in Spain. After a chance meeting with Rita Hayworth in a NY park, he's lured by the femme fatale
against his better judgment to serve as a deck hand on her husband's yacht. As the boat sails through one exotic locale after another, stopping for island excursions and picnics, Welles is sucked into the miserable life occupied by Hayworth's wealthy, defense-attorney husband and his law partner, who find joy in nothing but sitting around drinking and shoveling insults and pithy sarcasm on each other. Naturally, Welles appears to be the ideal escape for Hayworth, and the two begin to plot a future together as the two lawyers plot something different entirely.

Upon docking the yacht in San Francisco, the film's second half begins as a cynical court-room satire and spins into a disorientating jaunt through several elaborate set pieces, the most famous being a deserted fun house and its oft-copied hall of mirrors climax. The finale is done so well — it refuses to feel tired despite 60 years of copy cats — that the entire film feels better in hindsight. The acting is top-notch for the most part, save for Welles questionable Irish brogue. But the two best performances come from Everett Sloan's understated, devilish turn as the husband Arthur Banister, and Glenn Anders portrayal of his insane law-partner George Grisby. The two really give The Lady From Shanghai its joyous slime. B+


Brendan said...

This movie looks interesting. I like what I've seen of Welles' directorial work (though I've seen a lot of movies he's only acted in)- have you seen his adaptation of Kafka's The Trial? Did you ever get around to watching The Third Man? And I'm sure you've seen Citizen Kane. Would you consider yourself a big Welles fan?

Warped Coasters said...

I like "Citizen Kane," even if its top ranking on so many lists make it impossible to enjoy in its own right and impossible to absorb on its own terms (as good as it is).

I'm a Welles fan, but I can't call myself a big fan because, to be honest, I haven't seen his other work. I've got the "The Trial" and all of his other directorial efforts in the que, though.

There are visual aspects to "The Lady from Shanghai" that are simply stunning (and I was lucky that it was streaming in HD on netflix), but the whole thing is so disjointed. It had potential to be perfect.

Warped Coasters said...

And, in that respect, it's emblematic of Welles' life story.

And I still haven't seen "The Third Man," dammit, which is a glaring omission. I NEED MORE TIME.

Warped Coasters said...

I watched "The Third Man" last night, review to come later. It was good, but I think I actually liked the less-heralded "Lady from Shanghai" more.

Brendan said...

I'll be able to discuss better once I've gotten a hold of Lady from Shanghai.