Through a Glass, Darkly: ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ and the Legend of Orson Welles

Mill Creek Entertainment

Orson Welles needed $50,000 to pay for costumes, so on opening night, in desperation, he called the president of Columbia Pictures and asked for a loan. Welles was frequently in desperation in 1946, and he frequently tried to talk his way out of it. His play, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days, was an audacious disaster, featuring giant mechanical elephants and music by Cole Porter; Welles had to finance it himself when the producer stormed out, and he was broke. His film career, which began six years earlier when he wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane at the age of 25, was sputtering. His second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, had been taken out of his hands and butchered by the studio. Since then, he’d developed a reputation for fighting with producers, wasting money, and turning in work that played to studio heads as insultingly uncommercial. Just 31, he was seen as headstrong and difficult, the increasingly unsalvageable shipwreck of a self-appointed genius.

What was happening to him? Just a few years ago, he’d been so in demand that he had to hire ambulances to cart him from theater to theater in New York, sirens wailing; his triumphs couldn’t wait on the traffic. At 23, he’d created a sensation when his radio play based on H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds made some listeners think Earth was really under Martian attack. (Police rushed the studio, trying to shut down the broadcast.) He’d dated Billie Holiday, fought Ernest Hemingway with a chair. His career had always been an exercise in pandemonium splendidly managed. Now it was threatening to slip out of his control.

His marriage was also failing. Rita Hayworth was, in mid-1946, one of the biggest stars in the world, just months removed from her turn as the femme fatale in Charles Vidor’s sultry noir melodrama Gilda. How famous was she? That summer, a military crew conducting nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll put her picture on the fourth atomic bomb ever detonated. (She was outraged; still, that’s iconicity.) Onscreen, she was a still, blue flame, the opposite of Welles’s puffed-up baritone swagger; off it, her insecurity and loneliness were a dark mirror image of his Olympian confidence. Of course they fell for each other. You can guess how it worked out. She longed for a conventional life, he rolled through the world in a slow-moving avalanche of personal chaos. He had affairs. He owed her money. It was a disaster, except that they loved each other. When Welles phoned Harry Cohn, the Columbia Pictures boss, to save his play, he and Hayworth were in the middle of splitting up. They found it hard. In the end, it took them as long to get divorced as they’d previously spent being married.

Welles told Cohn that in return for the money, he’d write, direct, and act in a movie for Columbia. Cohn, incidentally, was one of the most controlling studio heads in an era absolutely brimming with them, the sort of executive who’d bug a painting in a director’s office to keep tabs on a project (he did this with Welles, in fact). He was someone whom neither an artistic perfectionist, which Welles was, nor an intractable egotist, which Welles also was, should ever have gone near except under the most carefully premeditated circumstances. What’s the movie? Cohn asked on the phone, and the way Welles told the story later, he glanced at a shelf of novels and picked a title at random: If I Die Before I Wake, a thriller by Sherwood King. He’d never read the book.

Cohn wired the money. Later, as a kind of by-the-by, he added a condition: make the movie, but cast Hayworth in it. Around the World opened on Broadway in May and flopped before the end of the summer. Welles flew back to Hollywood. That’s how The Lady From Shanghai got made.

lady-of-shanghai-hp-3.PNGMill Creek Entertainment

Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, 100 years ago, on May 6, 1915. His family was wealthy and established, but with an odd little wobble to it; his father, Richard, who’d made a fortune inventing a carbide bicycle lamp, was a charismatic drunk, “the kind of man with his own brand of cigar and a racehorse named after him,” as the journalist Josh Karp has written. Welles’s mother, Beatrice, left in 1919 and took Orson with her to Chicago, where she made ends meet playing piano at Art Institute lectures. Ambitious, formidable Beatrice saw her younger son as a self-evident genius, and so Orson was raised to regard himself. Habitués of the family salon describe a child who would discourse on Shakespeare and then, seized by inspiration, take to his easel to paint a character portrait.

It’s interesting, if you picture them on a collision course, to contrast Welles’s early years with Hayworth’s. She was born, as Margarita Carmen Cansino, into a celebrated family of Spanish dancing masters, recently relocated to Brooklyn, who put her onstage from the time she was 6 years old. So, from the very beginning: discipline, practice, limit — the sort of fevered and unhappy creative childhood it’s hard to imagine today. Welles was given total freedom. He studied whatever he wanted. He was exclaimed over, encouraged in everything. Beatrice died when he was 9 (and here, if you want it, is Rosebud: the first agony in Citizen Kane when the boy is sent away from his mother) and Richard drank himself to death a few years later. By his mid-teens, Orson had gone to Europe and talked his way into an Irish theatrical troupe, insisting that he was a veteran Broadway actor. Before he ever got onstage, he was already playing himself.

He never stopped. By now, the story of Welles’s career is so well worn and so idealized that it’s almost hard to take seriously. The golden early successes, the masterworks reedited and ruined by uncomprehending studio heads, the long years of exile — the arc feels neatly packaged, a Behind the Music you’ve seen once too often. This isn’t the ’60s, when the notion of the film director as individual artist-hero had real cultural juice behind it. Isn’t there something faintly preposterous, now, about the idea of genius? And especially about the kind of overblown, masculine, 20th-century variety of genius represented by Welles? “What does it matter what you say about people?” Marlene Dietrich not quite asks at the end of 1958’s Touch of Evil, as she turns away from Welles’s bloated corpse; it’s easy to look back on his life now and think, Well, what does it?

Go back to the work, though, and you’ll see it — what a wild improvisation it was, what a dark carnival. This was an artist, after all, who was the voice of the Shadow in the late 1930s (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”) and the voice of Unicron, the devouring planet from the animated Transformers movie, released in 1986. His course wasn’t set by some pre-worked narrative; it was set by contingency, by his attempt to live out the myth of himself through catastrophe and chance. (In American history, maybe no artist has been more devoted to his own myth or more diligent in generating events that would undermine it.) It was a performance that produced gorgeous, disturbing visions: faces lit from strange angles; shadowed backgrounds falling away into deep-focus, lushly saturated black and white. It also broke the border between life and art in a way that the official Welles legend tends to miss. Welles’s legacy isn’t a series of hermetically sealed masterpieces lost to studio meddling. It’s everything, all of it, the transfigured bedlam of his whole unsealed existence.

lady-of-shanghai-hp-5Mill Creek Entertainment

Nowhere is this more visible than in The Lady From Shanghai, the movie he made in return for Cohn’s costume money. Recently reissued on Blu-ray by Mill Creek, The Lady From Shanghai is the only film Welles made with Hayworth. Judged aesthetically, as a noir thriller, it’s a fascinating, misfit mess; David Thomson called it “the garbage dump outside town, always seething with fire.” Judged in the context of Welles’s work as a whole, it’s even more fascinating, because it’s here — much more than in Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, and even more than in his turn as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight — that you can surprise the Orson Welles myth in the act of discovering itself.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of those genre movies that occasionally snuck out of old Hollywood, the kind in which genre itself somehow becomes surreal. The mechanics of the conventional pulp-noir plot are submerged under so many layers of mood and style that they become indistinct, like the pivots of a dream. “The plot no longer interferes with underlying action,” the French critic André Bazin wrote. This is a nice way of saying that the story makes no sense. But the architecture of the story, the smoldering glances and double crosses and guns jabbed into ribs, is so familiar that there’s a lyric thrill in the exposure of its unreality.

Welles plays Mike O’Hara, a wry, self-impressed Irish sailor who’s seen the world and concluded that he’s just about the smartest guy in it. He fought in the Spanish Civil War and killed one of Franco’s spies; he thinks that someday he’ll maybe write a novel. One night in Central Park, he saves a woman from three robbers. “These men were not professionals,” he says in voice-over, in Welles’s really pretty dreadful Irish brogue, “and that’s maybe the reason why I start out in this story a little bit like a …” [sardonic pause] “… hero.”

The woman is Hayworth, of course, playing Elsa Bannister, the wife of “the world’s greatest criminal attorney.” You can guess a lot about the Bannisters’ marriage from the way she looks at Welles. The next day, her husband hires Mike — ostensibly out of gratitude, though you sense a darker motive — to help pilot his yacht on a pleasure cruise through the Panama Canal.

The cruise is hot, unhappy, fraught with a strange sense of doom. This section of the movie plays like a proto-L’Avventura in which no one has the decency to disappear. The rich passengers rot on the ship in a sort of malicious torpor. There’s Arthur Bannister, the lawyer, played with hawklike malevolence by Everett Sloane; he walks with two canes and has a private detective following his wife. There’s Arthur’s partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), a sweaty, leering eccentric who’s obsessed with the atom bomb and the end of the world. Then there’s Elsa, whose interactions with Mike are so erotically charged that both Arthur and George take notice. She seems to be drowning in some vague sorrow, which Mike, who’s of course fallen in love with her, wants to save her from. Maybe it has something to do with her mysterious past in Shanghai. But what is it?

Welles and Hayworth have a compellingly strange chemistry. He is physically gigantic, kinetic, self-consciously suave (this, you can’t help but think, is both a function of playing Mike and a function of being himself); at times he seems to want to overwhelm her with rough charm. But she has a way of vanishing into herself that leaves him clutching at air. He can arch his eyebrows, smirk, and tower over her, but she knows how to sidestep without moving: Poor Michael, you really know nothing of the world. Like his friend Hemingway, Welles loved bullfighting; here, he’s a man who thinks he’s the matador and finds out too late that he’s the bull.

The quintessential turn in a Welles plot is the moment when the protagonist finds himself beyond the limit of the quality by which he’s defined himself — when the horror of eclipsed pride gives him a glimpse of a larger and more terrible world. It’s not enough for Kane to lose his integrity; he has to know he’s lost it. Falstaff has to see in Hal’s eyes the frontier of his power to enthrall. In The Lady From Shanghai, Mike’s pride is built on his experience and independence. But on the yacht, to his consternation, the others treat him as an innocent, almost as a child. It’s as if they’ve lived in a country of depravity and cynicism that he’s never seen. The movie asks whether his optimistic, romantic humanism can survive in the presence of true nihilism. “Everything’s bad,” Elsa tells him softly. “You can’t fight it.”

What this nihilism consists of is never explained, exactly. (What did Elsa see in Shanghai? Forget it, Jake, it’s actually China.) But the air is sinister. George wants to have Arthur murdered. Arthur knows some terrible secret about Elsa; this may explain why she married him. A maid on the yacht suggests that Elsa is in danger. And the world is going to end: George can’t look at a city without imagining atom bombs raining down on it. Finally, on a walk through a sun-bleached Acapulco, George offers Mike $5,000 to murder him, George. And then — well, everything gets weirder after that. “It’s a bright, guilty world,” Mike says at one point, and the implied question isn’t so much whether the world is really guilty as whether it’s even bright.

lady-of-shanghai-hp-2.PNGMill Creek Entertainment

Welles took on The Lady From Shanghai essentially as hackwork, but the glory and the tragedy of being Orson Welles was that nothing could stop him from being Orson Welles; when he went to Santa Catalina Island to bang out the screenplay, he found his quick-hit noir blossoming into a fatally ambitious, two-and-a-half-hour exploration of guilt, regret, and alienation. Tasked with producing a commercial hit, he ordered Hayworth, who was celebrated for her flowing red locks, to cut her hair short and dye it blonde. He planned a difficult-verging-on-insane shoot that involved working almost entirely on location, something unheard of in Hollywood at the time. He rented Errol Flynn’s yacht; Flynn would insist on piloting it himself, then angrily interrupt takes with rants that Welles biographer Simon Callow describes as “drunken, lascivious, racist [and] potentially violent.”

The shoot turned into a nightmare, Herzog/Kinski-style — tropical rain, insects, fighting, stress. Welles popped amphetamines to keep his weight down and his energy wherever it went when it was higher than his usual level (not low, you’d imagine). He and Hayworth were together, or else they weren’t. Half of the crew went down with dysentery. Hayworth collapsed on set. At one point, when Hayworth was filming a scene in the ocean, Welles had to hire a swimmer to keep barracudas at bay.

Visually, it was marvelous. Welles framed scenes with stark, expressionist angles, filmed them in long, fluid takes. There are shots that could steal your breath. Late in the film, there’s an unforgettable sequence set in an aquarium, where Welles and Hayworth are silhouetted against blown-up backdrops of marine life: a roiling octopus, a sea turtle, a tremendous school of fish. Welles’s idea was to keep the tone ambiguous, to make something “off-center, queer, strange,” as he wrote in a memo to Cohn. He’d planned a Rita Hayworth vehicle with almost no close-ups in it. But Welles was too giddy a showman to be the detached Brechtian he fancied himself. The effect in Lady From Shanghai is that the best passages — like the aquarium scene, and like the legendary ending, a shootout in a hall of mirrors that’s been copied and parodied in so many other movies that it’s practically in a hall of mirrors itself — pull you in and push you away simultaneously. They make you gasp with wonder a split second before their off-center strangeness freezes your heart.

Cohn hated it, of course. How could Welles have ever imagined that he wouldn’t? Columbia wanted an easy moneymaker; Welles turned in a 155-minute fever dream suffused with the despair of his collapsing marriage. And so, after The Magnificent Ambersons (the best movie ever made that doesn’t precisely exist), The Lady From Shanghai wound up as arguably his most vandalized masterpiece. Cohn ripped an hour out of the running time. He inserted continuity-destroying close-ups, breaking up Welles’s masterful long takes. He tore out George Antheil’s avant-noir music and replaced it with the sort of score that thinks every dramatic pause needs a swelling crescendo. He made Hayworth sing a song. And so forth.

lady-from-shanghai-6.PNGMill Creek Entertainment

The strange thing about these depredations, though, is how little they actually impede the movie, even in the naive sense of blocking access to Welles’s intentions. Welles told a story about a cocksure idealist encountering the nihilism of greed, a story that must have already had personal resonance. Cohn’s hijacking had the effect of enacting this drama on the film itself. Welles wanted to use the noir form to alienate the audience from genre expectations. Cohn’s cuts produced a plot that was even more oblique and arbitrary than the original, with music that seemed piped in from a different theater. Welles was half trying to save and half trying to escape his relationship with Hayworth. Cohn’s insistence on splicing pinup-girl glamour shots into her cool, sad performance created a movie that didn’t know whether it was in love with her or terrified of her.

One of the film’s motifs involves Mike’s fear of confinement. He had a scarring experience in a Spanish prison during the war, and now he avoids police; the ocean represents freedom to him, which is one reason the scene in the aquarium, with captive sea creatures squirming behind glass, is so unnerving. Of course, the movie puts him behind bars near the end for the compulsory murder he didn’t commit. But doesn’t the studio’s editing, whereby artistic freedom is visibly inhibited by outside control, represent another kind of prison closing in?

Is it a good movie? No, not if you want plots you can follow and visuals that don’t seem to be maiming themselves. (On the other hand, why would you?) But it’s greater and stranger than most conventionally good movies because of this bizarre thematic Möbius strip: Welles tried to make a personal artistic statement out of a B-movie thriller, and the thriller became the exact nightmare he was trying to make a statement about. In a way, the art was more self-aware than he was; it refused to stop being life. He had built the hall of mirrors, then found that he’d wandered into it. Audiences in 1948, when Columbia released the film in America, were not prepared for something this opulently broken. The movie flopped.

It was rediscovered by European critics, the way these things always are, and it pointed toward an era when Welles tackled one project after another that seemed to merge his filmmaking with his life: not just his Falstaff, but the Don Quixote he was never able to finish (a doomed idealistic quest about a doomed idealistic quest), and then the notorious F for Fake (a film about art forgeries that is itself deeply unreliable). Josh Karp has written a terrific new book about Welles’s uncompleted last film; called The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’s intended comeback project is about a legendary director making a comeback film called The Other Side of the Wind. Welles grew very skilled, as he got older, at exploiting the self-reflexive potential of his persona (while denying — because that was part of the game — that he ever did so). But in The Lady From Shanghai, the echoes are still accidental. It’s the film where Welles faced the crisis his characters so often encountered — the film where his genius turned out not to be larger than life.

Its reflections followed him for years. “The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so maybe I’ll concentrate on that,” Mike says in a voice-over at the end of the movie. “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her … maybe I’ll die trying.” On the evening before his death at the age of 70 in October 1985, Welles did an interview on The Merv Griffin Show. What does it matter what you say about people? He talked about Rita Hayworth.

Filed Under: Movies, orson welles, rita hayworth, the lady from shanghai, The Other Side of the Wind

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay

More from Brian Phillips

See all from Brian Phillips

More Movies

See all Movies

More Hollywood Prospectus

See all Hollywood Prospectus