Thursday 23 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Lady From Shanghai" (1948)

In The Lady From Shanghai, Orson Welles plays Michael O'Hara, a penniless Spanish Civil War veteran recruited to serve as bosun on a boat chartered by Rita Hayworth (the deal clincher) and her rich, older lawyer husband. After some travelogue footage in Latinate locations and eccentric, shipbound comedy - the arrival of the old man's business partner, and a conspicuous radio commercial for hair pomade - we arrive at an even more crackpot plot, wherein our hero is propositioned with an offer of $5,000 from a man planning his own murder. Lady can't be the masterpiece Citizen Kane was - there's too much plain wrong with it, Welles's mock-Irish brogue first and foremost - but it is, if anything, even more fascinating (and more than a touch insincere) in its creator's attempts to reassemble shards of superior films from the preceding decade, and to stamp his own idiosyncratic personality upon the assembled product.

Welles's social concerns show through in the early scenes, as the boat hauls through one impoverished Mexican port after another; it begins to look like one of the few American films of the period to deal with class, and how the gap between the haves and have-nots might only be bridged through homicidal activity. Increasingly, though, Lady is driven by Welles's condescending attitude to noir as a form: the question that seems to be occupying him is why anyone would deign to waste their time making silly thrillers, when they could be aspiring towards Art. (The idea of noir-AS-Art doesn't seem to have crossed his mind.) The net result now feels closer to Beat the Devil than The Big Sleep - look again at the rambling, discursive joke Welles makes out of the courtroom sequence, at the point the walls should be closing in on O'Hara, or the funfair finale, which more often looks absurd than threateningly surreal - and a film that takes nothing seriously, save its leading lady. Truly, Hayworth was never lovelier, or shot more adoringly; as an old biddy in that courtroom puts it, "Oh, I just want to look at her."

The Lady From Shanghai is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

No comments:

Post a Comment