#44 — The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
After his debut feature accomplished nothing less than redefining the possibilities of cinema itself, Orson Welles never delivered another film that wasn’t compromised in one way or another. Even with his smaller, scrappier efforts, on which he came closest to the unquestioned creative authority of Citizen Kane, he was constrained by tight budgets and his own bad habits, which only grew the further away he got from Hollywood’s irritating controls. And when Welles was trying to work within the system, it often seemed as though he was thwarted at every turn, in part by the same strictures that bedeviled every filmmaker with ambitions towards more adult fare and further by the insular culture that never fully forgave him for his early hubris. One of the clearest measures of his uncommon talent is the level of artistry Welles still regularly reached under these conditions. He came to The Lady from Shanghai, for example, out of a certain level of desperation. Welles was deep in debt and in need of a commercial hit to maintain his ever-precarious career. Forget art. It was time to make a thriller.
I don’t mean to imply that Welles gave The Lady from Shanghai anything less than his all. If anything, he had an almost congenital inability to pander, which itself prevented his star from rising all that high. Besides, the source material, Sherwood King’s novel If I Should Die Before I Wake, was exactly the sort of pulpy potboiler Welles was susceptible to as a reader. But like Paul Thomas Anderson decades later, Welles came at every story with a inherent inclination to find every possible way to make it more complex and daunting. The basics of the plot remain roughly the same, with a poor sleepy schmo caught up in circumstances beyond his reckoning, in large part because of the allure of a beautiful woman. It is, in other words, the stuff of film noir. Welles twists it around to send the film careening to more exotic locales, further discombobulating his protagonist, sailor Michael O’Hara (played by Welles himself). The film has the necessary headlong momentum (with the occasional musical number, maybe the most obvious concession to perceived audience desire), but Welles is clearly more interested in testing the limits as he yanks on the levers of the narrative.
Nothing highlights the ambition of Welles more clearly and forcefully that the closing set piece, with the various characters stalking each other through a maze of mirrors, fracturing images repeating across the screen in kaleidoscopic wonderment. It’s more than a mere display of technical bravado, though. Within that dizzying scene, Welles manages to effectively contain then compress the snapping threads of the standard pulpy narrative into a apt visual metaphor for the trickery that exists within it. Further, it is another example of Welles’s lifelong compulsion to redefine cinematic language, like someone inventing words in a needful attempt to communicate the nearly indefinable ideas bounding around their brain. He may have run into problems with the censors (his first draft of the screenplay was rejected outright) and kept rejiggering the film to suit the mandates of the studio (not mention the undoubtedly significant challenge of working with his estranged wife, Rita Hayworth), but the impediments that would fell most filmmakers only serves as wispy clouds casting light shadows on the shimmering work of Welles. Sometimes creative brilliance prevails.