Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

The career of Orson Welles is one of the most fascinating in all of Hollywood history. A filmmaker so pragmatic, so mercurial, that seemingly every one of his films was ahead of its time, both disrespected or at least tossed off in its initial run, and mercilessly butchered. The Lady from Shanghai fell firmly into both camps. The film originally clocked in at over 2 hours, but the studio hacked off 45 minutes or so into a speedy 86 minutes, making what is on the screen only somewhat coherent, which probably partly led to its failure at the box office (its not quite The Magnificent Ambersons in scope, butchered interference or quality, but it definitely stands in its own in all categories)

This is a film about sailor Mike O'Hara (Welles, sporting an iffy Irish brogue) who is hired to work on Arthur Bannister's yacht (the always-slimy Everett Sloane) and he engages in a strange, torrid affair with the man's wife, Elsa (blonde-locked Rita Hayworth, Welles' real life, soon-to-be-ex wife), and ends up in a bizarre murder plot involving a fake death and a real murder that ends up putting Welles on trial. In a jarring transition that reeks of a hackjob, it goes into a amusingly silly courtroom fight scene, and then moves on to one of the most amazing sequences you will ever see, a confusing, breathtaking sequence set in a Hall of Mirrors.As I just mentioned, the setpieces that DID make it into the movie are impeccably directed and wonderfully composed (such as sequences in aquariums and symbolic chess pieces), and Welles, although fades in and out of his sketchy accent, still exudes more screen presence than 95% of actors in the history of film, and the rest of the characters are as enigmatic as the film is incomprehensible. It's like The Big Sleep, but instead of riding on Bogie and his love of Bacall, it rides on Orson and love of the camera.

#6 in my now-10 of 1948.

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