The Lady From Shanghairecommended viewing

Burning brilliance
Orson Welles
Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders
The Setup: 
Man gets involved with dangerous trio of insane people.

I’ve recently bought a good HD camera with the idea of starting to make little films that I can put on the Internet, just a hobby kind of thing, but toward that goal I’ve also bought a bunch of books on filmmaking and cinematography. My one book on cinematography kept mentioning this film as an example, so finally I decided I had to see it. And it was, like so may of those classic films, an absolute delight and put so many contemporary films to shame with its quality and the density of its story and characterization.

We open with Welles’ voiceover, in a rather horrible attempt at an Irish accent, that is going to continue throughout the film. You get used to it, but it grates. He is Michael, and he sees Rita Hayworth as Elsa riding alone in a carriage in Central Park, and flirts with her, offering a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke but takes it, wrapping it in a handkerchief [strange]. Moments later, he sees her handbag, and knows she’s in trouble. He rushes in and fights off three muggers, then drives the carriage to the garage where she parked the car. There is a long shot in which she is in the carriage and he atop, and you’ll notice that his lips do not move when he speaks.

They get back to her garage, where they discuss the case of a man who killed his wife, but got away with it. He had an excellent lawyer—a Mr. Bannister. She says they’re leaving on a yacht for a long trip to San Francisco by way of the South Seas… and have a job on crew. When he refuses, she says suggestively: “I’ll make it worth your while.” He returns her GUN. He asks if she had a gun in her purse, why didn’t she use it when being attacked? She says she simply doesn’t know how to use it. “It’s easy,” he says. “You just pull the trigger.”

Well, you know what Chekhov says about “if you introduce a gun in the first act…” Otherwise, I was having to stop this movie every few minutes to catch up on ALL the significant things that were being done and said! Oh, but we’re not done. Some sketchy guy who has been lingering around crosses frame significantly as her car drives out of the garage—who is he? Then the attendant says “Good night. Mrs, Bannister.” You see, SHE is the wife of the criminal lawyer we just heard about! Oh, and by the way, we’e also found out in here that Mike has killed a man in the past. Great!

The next day, an older man who needs two canes to walk on his barely-usable legs comes into a seaman’s hangout, looking for Mike. He finds him, and we soon find out that this man is Bannister himself, comes to insist that Mike take the job. They all get drunk [there are some wonderful peripheral characters in this scene] and… wouldn’t you know, Mike has to take the drunk Bannister back to his yacht, where he sees Elsa in a smart, glamorous sailor outfit. She begs him to stay, in a way that sounds like she is in some danger. The mysterious smoking man from the night before is also there, but says it must have been someone else. Then the hispanic female servant on the boat begs Mike to stay, that someone must help the “poor child.” Reader, he agrees!

So, off they go, on the yacht. Elsa is always around, flirting and teasing Mike, but then, so is the eagle eye of Bannister, who seems fascinated at their flirtation, although we sense disaster for all involved if they should give into it. Then this man in a suit—the same mysterious guy lurking about early—docks with the yacht from a boat while everyone is away, and starts goading Mike about the man he murdered. This is George Grisby, who speaks in an annoyingly chipper, insinuating tone, is always smoking, and is almost always sweaty. As such: he’s terrific! Really a great character piece, spot on, and it was a disappointment to find that the actor, Glenn Anders, didn’t do much else. Grisby is Bannister’s partner, and he makes it abundantly clear that he wants Mike to kill someone for him: details forthcoming. They are shot very close together in frame, and Gribsy remains very creepy and troubling.

Grisby leaves, and Elsa shows up again. She comes onto Mike, HARD, saying such things as that she has taken up smoking because of him. She comes on so hard that he slaps her, which she is genuinely shocked by, as is he… and after a bit more flirting, they kiss! “Bye, kiddies!” yells Grisby loudly, making sure they know that he’s still around—and he saw them. So… Elsa’s constantly flirting, but the thing is: you never know when her husband is going to show, and thus it’s unclear what they could really do anyway. And now this Grisby character is snooping around… does it seem like enough to drive poor Mike crazy? I thought this might be just a side effect, but by the end… well, we’ll get to that.

Now one thing we start to notice are certain electrifying sequences, many of which hit that special spot where you almost don’t know why what you just saw is so amazing, it just happens on a kind of gut level. The first is a scene at sea where Elsa is laying back, and passes a cigarette down for Grisby to light. He says he doesn’t have a match. Then Mike reaches over and lights the cigarette in Grisby’s mouth, who then passes it silently up to Elsa, who takes it and put it to her lips as she stares dreamily up into the sky. It’s gorgeous and expresses how screwy all of these relationships are.

It is followed closely by another astonishing sequence… Mike has finally had enough, and announces that he’s going to quit. He goes downstairs to gather his things, but then Elsa starts to sing, and we see Mike downstairs, listening and enraptured by her voice. Nothing is said, but by the time he comes back on deck, we know that there is no way he will leave.

Now here’s where things start to get confusing… we know Grisby has some sort of murder plot. Then Bannister starts talking that he knows someone is planning to kill him. Bannister has a private detective, Broome, who he has hired to spy on Elsa, with the idea that if she cheats, he’ll divorce her and leave her penniless. Mike suggests that she could live without his money, but she won’t consider it.

They stop at an island in the South Seas where they are going to have a “picnic.” This involves taking canoes deep into the interior, where they settle on a beach… it was at this point that I first understood that this movie is set among not just the rich, but the super-rich of its time. And Welles’ insistence on location photography means we have wonderful shots of the characters with a lagoon, then natives on a beach further in the background. Bannister and Grisby are talking about the situation with Elsa, and Bannister says he likes that Mike is in love with Elsa. It is implied that Bannister has some sort of secret information on Else that ties her to him. At this point it’s just a ton of loaded comments going back and forth and one is unsure who wants what or why… which is why you’ll understand when Mike looks at them all and says: “Is this what you people do for amusement?” Mike then tells a story of being in a fishing boat as sharks filled the water, then went into a frenzy and started consuming each other until they were all dead. The meaning of this story is unescapable and silences the three idle rich folks.

The next day, Grisby reveals the details of his murder plan: he offers Mike $5,000 to kill HIM [Grisby]. There’s another enthralling sequence as Mike punches out Broome, Bannister’s spy, causing Elsa to run off, causing Mike to run after her, at which point he catches her and promises to take her away. She still wants Bannister’s money, but by the time they arrive in San Francisco, Mike is saying they could run away together—on $5,000, meaning he is planning to take Grisby up on his murder offer.

He meets with Grisby, who knows precisely what he wants the money for. Grisby wants Mike to sign a confession to his murder, then Grisby will disappear [not actually be killed], and, since they won’t find a corpse, Mike will not be convicted [according to the law at that time]. Mike signs the confession. He agrees to meet Elsa in the aquarium, and here comes one of the things discussed in my cinematography book that got me interested in watching this movie: as they walk in front of the tanks, the fish are enlarged to demonstrate Mike’s unraveling state of mind. So you see them standing in front of these GIANT fish… it’s one of those things it would be impossible to say how noticeable it would be if you didn’t know, but the book claims that most people don’t notice. I would say it’s almost impossible to miss the massive moray eel filling the screen as Elsa reads the confession Grisby has prepared. She advises him to go along with anything Grisby says [great advice!] but warns him that she’s sure her husband is behind it.

I’ve decided not to go into the very, very convoluted ending, except to say that the shit hits the fan, there are some satisfying reversals and some not-so-satisfying [or comprehensible] ones, and the whole thing ends in a very convoluted, but ultimately satisfying way. What does get paid off, although it always remains subtext, is the sense that Mike is slowly being driven crazy. More and more throughout the film we sense that the pressure and cross-currents of jealousies and desires are driving him insane, and in the climax, he symbolically descends into madness as we enter the justifiably famous climax in a hall of mirrors. He is mildly drugged, and there is a shootout amongst all the surviving characters, their images repeated and fractured in haunting ways that literalize Mike’s madness as the film goes full-on surreal. It’s brilliant.

So, very enjoyable, very smart and with numerous outstanding little sequences… yet still, one senses they could really get it right with another pass, or that a remake could really have the opportunity to make it much more solid. Apparently the studio was very unhappy with Welles’ version—his preference for location shooting, his filming in medium shots without many close-ups, and his long takes—that they forced him to go back for reshoots, then took over a year to edit the film, ending with a version Welles was very unhappy with—and that also further enhanced Welles’ reputation for going over budget and not delivering decent product. I’m a little surprised to hear about the medium shots, as certain sequences of close-ups [particularly when Grisby is goading Mike] are so close, and so effective. So it’s not 100% in place, but everything about it is so interesting that you won’t care.

I was really into the depth of the characterizations, the effective psychological tormenting of Mike, the gradual descent into madness, and the way everything flies apart in the end. This is not to mention the various electrifying little sequences that pepper the film, and the lovely images put before us. I didn’t so much appreciate Welles’ voice-over throughout, but ultimately you are in the nice position to just sit back and know that you’re in the hands of a brilliantly skilled director who you can trust to take you on a very engaging and delightful ride. When you want something that is sure to be satisfying, rich and deep… this is out there for you.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, a very worthwhile watch.