When I learned that Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader had described The Lady from Shanghai as “the weirdest great movie ever made” I felt that somehow frequent attendees of this series would not be surprised that I had chosen it to show.
The story goes that Welles, in financial trouble, producing a stage show of Around the World in Eighty Days, which was hemorrhaging cash, called Harry Cohn, Columbia’s studio head, and offered to make a picture for him, based on a 1938 thriller by R. Sherwood King, called If I Die Before I Wake. Cohn’s Columbia had had several hits with Rita Hayworth, whose marriage with Welles, coincidentally, was about to end. Welles was behind on his child support payments to Hayworth, which is said to have influenced her decision to make the movie. Why Cohn thought Welles could or would make a film that would burnish Hayworth’s image, carefully built by Columbia, is unclear. Why Welles thought he could make a Hayworth film for Cohn that Cohn would not make major alterations to is even more unclear. The script was written by Welles, with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle. Charles Lawton was the credited cinematographer, but parts of the film were also photographed by Rudolph Maté, who had earlier photographed Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc and Vampyr, and who would later direct films noirs like D.O.A. and Union Station, and Joseph Walker, who had photographed nearly all Frank Capra’s films. It was filmed from October, 1946 through February, 1947, in the studio and on location in Acapulco, Sausalito, and San Francisco. It was a difficult shoot, especially in Acapulco – many participants were sick, and cameraman Don Corey died. The yacht depicted was leased from Errol Flynn, with the reportedly obnoxious owner in attendance throughout the shoot. Aside from Welles and Hayworth, the picture also featured Everett Sloane as Bannister, and Glenn Anders as Grisby, whose performance, Tony Paley of the Guardian wrote, “captured the essence of the film, leering and smirking in equal measure with demonic glee.” It cost a half-million dollars more than the budgeted $2.3 million. Cohn held up the film’s release until June 1948. The music, written by Heinz Roemheld around the central song chosen by Cohn, “Please Don’t Kiss Me” by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, was not what Welles wanted, which was a score by the American avant garde composer George Antheil. The version finally released was considerably shorter than Welles’ version. The Lady from Shanghai did not do well at the box office.
Dave Kehr also wrote “The film moves between Candide-like farce and a deeply disturbing apprehension of a world in grotesque, irreversible decay – it’s the only true film noir comedy.” The story is complex, with its plots-within-plots, the casual way assertions by characters turn out to be lies, and even the manner Welles’ character Michael-as-narrator seems to think differently from the Michael character we see on the screen, as University of Chicago philosophy professor Robert Pippin explains in his essay on “Agency and Fate in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.” The movie’s cinematic style is extraordinary, ending with the visual audacity of the mirror sequence. Welles biographer Simon Callow wrote “The film that we have – compromised, butchered, coarsened, cheapened – is still a remarkable and a highly personal work.” Linda Rasmussen of the website allmovie.com wrote, “The film confounds, unsettles and disorients the viewer, very much as Welles intended to do. While not an easy film, it is well worth the attention required to follow it. . .” Please join me in watching this exceptional but flawed Welles film, The Lady from Shanghai.