Orson Welles was once quoted as saying that he was “more interested in experiment, than in accomplishment”. Yet if you look back across his career as a director, you see a man who was equally capable of achieving both. Though it may no longer be so widely considered the best film ever made, ranking 33rd in Empire Magazine’s recent public poll, Citizen Kane continues to be held-up as the cinematic emblem that marked Welles’ astonishing filmmaking abilities, with its assured blend of innovative camera techniques and a richly rewarding narrative. Such wondrous skills were ever present across his filmography; notably in The Magnificent Ambersons & Touch Of Evil, which both shortly followed Kane. However, there is one discernable entry in Welles’ body of work, released between those films, which epitomised his creative beliefs.
It would be overzealous to call The Lady of Shanghai one of Welles’ best films, but it would be wrong to not proclaim it as one of his most original. Born out of a deal between Welles and the then president of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn, to save the pioneering writer/director/actor from bankruptcy, the film was initially designed as a entirely commercial enterprise, with Cohn insisting Welles’ estranged wife Rita Hayworth star as the eponymous femme fatale; one that the director agreed to, before shocking executives by having Hayworth’s trademark long red locks cut short and dyed blonde. It is within these creative ideas, which strived to subvert the audiences’ expectations, that Welles’ unique vision was born.
That Cohn famously offered to pay a thousand dollars to anyone who could explain the plot after viewing the film’s rough-cut speaks volumes as to how convoluted the story is. Yet the plot is perhaps Lady’s strongest element. It may be tough to follow at times, but its labyrinth of ruthless characters, driven by their own greed and desire, is a wholly engrossing experience. One that’s further bolstered by the uniformly excellent performances from Hayworth, Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders; with Sloane being a particular high point.
Despite carrying an accent that borders on caricature, Welles effortlessly succeeds in embodying the Irish charm as the film’s narrator Michael O’Hara. Telling the story entirely from his perspective, Michael guides us through the dog-eat-dog world he finds himself entrapped within having fallen in love with Hayworth’s Elsa Bannister; the wife of his employer and distinguished lawyer Arthur Bannister.
As a director, Welles proved his profound abilities to innovatively utilise real locations and embody the mise-en-scene of film noir. Striking scenes, such as the fairground finale with its infamous hall of mirrors climax, are fused with chiaroscuro lighting and permeated by Heinz Roemheld’s enticingly dark and moody score; building a tautly wrought atmosphere. One that’s further enhanced by the film’s sumptuous 4k restoration, which miraculously sharpens the once grainy image and adds greater definition to the film’s fabulous set-pieces.
What continues to define The Lady Of Shanghai as so innovatively relevant though, is that Welles dared to combine his noir aesthetic with playful delirium, generating a bizarre air that encapsulates Michael’s predicament. The brilliantly constructed courtroom scene, perhaps one of the funniest Welles ever created, humorously dabbles with the idea of genre pastiche; Arthur’s cross-examination of himself acting as the joke’s mighty crescendo.
Combing such varied moods with the film’s complex narrative does take its toll occasionally, with Welles intermittently struggling to find a balance between the film’s comedic edge and its increasingly tense disposition during the relentless second half. Plus with the film’s pace being almost entirely driven by the plot, the writer/director never succeeded in attaining the same levels of depth in his characters that was found in his most celebrated works.
The film’s greatest shame though, is that the cut down form we see now is not the film Welles originally intended for us to see. His 155 minute original, dubbed a true masterpiece by many who saw it, is now forever lost to the cinematic heavens. Yet, no matter how slightly flawed this final cut is, you can’t help but be hypnotised by Welles’ incredible vision. Through he will likely be primarily remembered for his sterling work in front of the camera, it should never be forgotten what magic he could create from behind it. His determination to develop the medium in his own creatively unique way was his greatest experiment and most admirable accomplishment.
The Lady Of Shanghai is playing at the BFI Southbank from July 25th – August 21st. Full details can be found here.