Tuesday, April 2, 2013


(June 1948, U.S.)

What did Sean Penn & Maddona, Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman and Ben Affleck & Jennifer Lopez all have in common? Well, with the exception of Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), they all made perfectly terrible movies together. Back during the golden age of cinema and film noir, though, real life Hollywood couples from Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall to Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton made films that would one day become cinematic classics. For THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, we have real life married couple (at the time) of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Real life Hollywood couples should either take serious notice of the past, or just not get married to each other in the first place.

Watching this film requires a rather serious appreciation of Orson Welles as an actor, a director and a gifted artist in general. On its surface, it's film noir that follows many of the textbook rules of plot, including the naive protaganist, the slightly less-than-stable criminal element and the beautiful femme fatale who inevitably turns out to be the killer in the end. In this story, Michael O'Hara (Welles) meets the beautiful blonde Elsa (Hayworth) and is immediately hooked by her beauty, charm and wickedness. He reveals that he's a seaman and learns that Elsa and her husband, a disabled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (played Everett Sloane - also in CITIZEN KANE), are newly arrived in New York City from Shanghai. They're on their way to San Francisco via the Panama Canal via Arthur's yacht. Michael, helplessly attracted to Elsa despite serious misgivings, agrees to sign on as an able seaman. Thus, the trouble begins. The murders of two men will shortly follow, for which Michael shall be accused of, and Arthur will defend him in court, despite knowing full well what he (Michael) and his wife are doing behind his back. In the end, just about everyone will meet their fate except Micahel who'll walk away free and hopefully having learned to stay away from those wicked femme fatales.

Now perhaps you've heard of the famous and sureal climactic "hall of mirrors" sequence. My simple written description cannot possibly do it true justice, but imagine if you will two betrayed lovers pointing guns at each other but not quite seeing which image is the true person. Imagine bullets flying and glass shattering everywhere and not knowing when and if the bodies have been hit until the lights come. The camera tricks and the illusions are quite an amazing sight to see, particularly in black and white imagery. An image like this may give you a somewhat general idea...

Woody Allen apparently loved this sequence so much, he payed direct homage to it (ripped it off directly is more like it!) during the climax of his 1993 film MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY.

As a stand alone film, there are many reasons to nitpick and criticize this film. For starters, it's not some of the best performances I've ever seen on film. There's dialogue that's either very wooden, very tin pan alley, very overacted or just plain bad. The true challenge of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is to take into account that Orson Welles is starting with the basic, tongue-in-cheek approach to the premise of film noir story-telling and either intentionally making a farce out of it, or he's simply deciding to have a little fun with the subject by turing things completely upside down on its ass to a rather silly extreme. For it's elements of photography, cinematography, muliple-perspective camera shots, tricky backgrounds and overlapping and rambling dialogue, it's pure Orson Welles filmmaking all the way. When you're watching and you find yourself getting rather irritated by it's negative aspects, your reaction can be one of two choices - you can either consider the idea of the film's subject and how the director's artistic vision is helping to shape it, revise it and ultimately pay some sort of personal homage to it...or you can simply turn off the movie in frustration. Don't. Give it a chance. It's worth it.

Favorite line or dialogue:

George Grisby: "You know, the law's a funny thing, fella. The state of California will say I'm dead...officially dead...if somebody'll say they murdered me. That's what I'm paying you for."
Michael O'Hara: "To murder you?"
George: "To say you did."
Michael: "What happens to you really?"
George: "I disappear."
Michael: "What happens to me?"
George: "Nothing. That's the choker. You swear you killed me, but you can't be arrested. That's the law. Look it up for yourself. There's no such thing as homicide unless they find a corpse. It just isn't murder if they don't find a body. According to the law, I'm dead if you say you murdered me. But you're not a murderer unless I'm dead. Silly, isn't it?"

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