Friday, March 19, 2010

Film Review - The Lady From Shanghai

Film #35 of 2010 - The Lady From Shanghai

The Lady From Shanghai, directed by and starring Welles, co-stars his then-wife Rita Hayworth, who plays Elsa Bannister, your classic 1940's noir femme fatale whose vulnerability masks certain danger, though one isn't sure how it will manifest. Welles is Michael O'Hara, an Irish drifter with a checkered past who meets Elsa and is immediately attracted to her, until he finds out she is married to Arthur Bannister (the awesomely snively Everett Sloane), the most successful defense attorney alive. Despite his initial misgivings, he eventually agrees to take a job as the member of the crew on the Bannisters' yacht, which is about to set sail on one of the weirdest cruises known to man. O'Hara's needling feeling that these idle rich people were up to no good comes to fruition when he finds himself falling in love with Elsa and becoming the lead suspect in a murder. The kicker: He has to rely on Arthur to defend him.

It seems nearly impossible that I had never seen this iconic Welles film before now, considering what a Welles devotee I purport to be, but it's just one of the many films I hadn't gotten around to seeing until recently. The imagery in The Lady From Shanghai is well known, and I had seen scenes and movie stills before, but they didn't prepare me for the breathtaking composition and almost avant garde style of film making. I can't decide if I liked the choppy editing, because it toed the line between just plain jarring and odd, to almost guerilla-style film making. In comparison to Citizen Kane, which happens to be my favorite film of all-time, The Lady From Shanghai is risky and abstract. While I watched the film I kept thinking of the tight shot of the very dark skinned band member in the celebratory "Charlie Kane" musical number in Kane, a shot that could be thought of as awkward, but I loved because it was just so different from anything else produced in 1941. There were a lot of "awkward" moments in Shanghai, most of them involving Bannister's law partner George (Glenn Anders) but in retrospect, he was a really creepy and weird guy, so it kind of worked, actually. The shots that were kind of awkward without explanation were the ones of O'Hara in the courtroom where every time the camera was trained on Welles, he was giving the same look in the other direction and it looked like he was in another dimension or something. That was just kind of odd and kind of laughable, actually, and I'm not going to get all cinephile and dissect the scene as him being in solitude or anything, because some things don't warrant qualification.

There were a few moments during the film where I felt like I was watching experimental film, mainly because of the editing, and then other times when I saw a lot of similarities to the work of David Lynch and the European New Wave movement. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if this film served as an inspiration to a lot of late filmmakers, in particular, filmmakers whose work I admire. The celebrated ending sequence in the abandoned fun house was, quite literally, breathtaking. I actually plan to take my DVD of this film and watch it frame by frame at some point because it was spectacular, even for the scarily talented and visionary Welles.

When I finished watching The Lady From Shanghai, I knew that there were a couple of absolutes: while Rita Hayworth is beautiful, she's not one of the great actresses, and unfortunately, Shanghai didn't change that fact. For that matter, Welles, though a good actor, was at times completely unintelligible with that Irish brogue, which probably could have been handled differently. The imagery was fabulous and heart-thumpingly good. And the pacing was off, possibly due to the fact that Welles was once again edited by the studio itself, when he was envisioning a film that was nearly an hour longer than the eventual run time. What I was on the fence about was the actual story, because I couldn't decide if the story was actually really good in a subtle way, or not quite there. And after overnight reflection, I definitely think that, despite a couple of cheap conveniences scattered throughout the film, the story is truly a good one and holds up, meriting the film to not just merely be an eye candy piece.

I can understand the somewhat widespread reverence of this film from a historical perspective, but I wonder how it was received back in 1947, because it really is different from so much that was produced at that time, even within its own genre. I actually really like films that seem to grow on me with further reflection, and The Lady From Shanghai is one of those kinds of movies. I think if you would have asked me shortly after the film ended what I thought of it I would have had a lower opinion than the one I do now, but the cerebral film nerd in me that loves to over think movies relishes in absorbing the film, and now that I have finally seen it, I actually really liked this one.

4 out of 5 stars


Alex said...

I recall my first viewing of this film. I sat down and thought, "Okay...Dazzle me Orson." While I was dazed during some moments of the film, I was totally dazzled. I think it's exciting you want to do a frame by frame. That will be equally rewarding because each frame is genius and each subsequent screening is equally gratifying. However, regarding your "absolute" criticism of Rita Hayworth: Have you seen "Gilda"? "Blood and Sand"? "Cover Girl"? "Miss Sadie Thompson"? "Seperate Tables"? She was truly an underrated actress and in these film I mention, she gave legendary performances that are still great. In terms of the noir genre, she was a master: "Angels Over Broadway" (1940), "Gilda" (1946), "Lady from Shanghai" (1947), "Affair In Trinidad" (1952) and "The Money Trap" (1965) track a 20+ year evolution of the femme fatale in noir cinema. That's extraordinary. What other actress achieved that? Not only that, but her musicals are divine. I think you may have caught her somewhere in the middle with "Lady From Shanghai", somewhere kind of daring and experimental. So that cannot be the basis of any absolute final determination of her talent. In a way, this performance was her middle finger to a studio-created image she detested. There's lots happening under that performance - I hope her talents reveal themselves to you in future screenings.

The Cinemaphile said...

Actually, you are absolutely right about Rita Hayworth. While my opinion of her acting ability stands, it is based on few films, and it was completely irresponsible to call it an absolute. Actually, not so much irresponsible as poor choice of words! :) I will definitely seek out her other work to see if it's just that I haven't experienced enough of her work. Thanks for your comment - it was definitely helpful!


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