The Lady from Shanghai: Welles at his most mischievous

Orson Welles’ exhilarating film noir finds the actor-director mixing profundity with playfulness.

Geoff Andrew

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The older I get, the more convinced I am of Orson Welles’s genius. That may not sound particularly worthy of comment, but I should explain that I’ve always believed he was one of those rare beings who deserved to be described with that much-overused word; so to be even more convinced about it now is saying a lot.

Even when I first encountered his work as a filmmaker (as opposed to a chat-show guest) in my teens, it was immediately evident that he somehow stood head and shoulders above most of the rest of the pack; with his conspicuously bold assurance, he even looked the part of a ‘genius’. Still, that was different: in those days, when Welles was still alive, people simply called him a genius as a matter of course. It was what he’d always been known as. It wasn’t necessarily a particularly positive epithet; sometimes one could even detect an element of inverted snobbery, resentment or mockery in the term. And of course he’d long been regarded with some suspicion as the ‘boy genius’ who, having shaken up the American theatre and radio drama in the 30s, had been given carte blanche – or so, at least, it was believed – to make a film in Hollywood. What’s more, he’d gone and made Citizen Kane, which was viewed in some quarters – the Hearst empire, anyway, which exerted no little influence over what people saw in their cinemas – as a case of the spoilt boy-genius biting the hand that had fed him.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

But it’s not that sort of ‘genius’ I’m talking about now: not the easily applied epithet, intended to confer some sort of half-crazy outsider status on the person in question. It’s something deeper, more substantial, of more lasting value. It’s not so much about the aforementioned ‘bold assurance’ – all too commonly found these days – as about creative ambition, audacity, intelligence, wit, open-mindedness and vision. All of which Welles had in spades. And all those qualities keep impressing themselves on me whenever I go back to watch one of his films again.

Despite the many obstacles to creative freedom he encountered during his filmmaking career, the majority of his movies are quite startlingly brilliant; even works like Othello, The Trial or The Chimes at Midnight, made under conditions so trying most other filmmakers would simply have given up the struggle, are endlessly intriguing and rewarding. And then there’s The Magnificent Ambersons, mutilated for all time by RKO so that its last half hour or so feels horribly rushed and sketchy after all that has preceded it; yet the film still strikes many, myself included, as a bona fide masterpiece, unrivalled in American filmmaking except by a handful of towering achievements – one of which, of course, is Citizen Kane.

When I first saw Kane, I was, of course, enormously impressed, but in comparison to Ambersons or even the deliriously daring Touch of Evil I found it a little cold and a touch too clever for its own good. Next time around I revised my opinion; I’d clearly been so distracted by the complexity and pace of the film’s narrative, the brilliance of the dialogue and acting, and the sophistication of the direction, that I’d failed to take proper note of its deep, dark emotional core. And that was it: each time I’ve watched the film – and I think I must have seen it at least a dozen times now – it gains in depth and I notice something new.

A few years ago, for example, I suddenly realised that the way Welles used architecture and décor in the film was extraordinarily rich and resonant – so much so that I felt moved to deliver an entire lecture on his metaphorical use of architecture. More recently, I decided to do a talk about dance scenes in films that aren’t musicals or about dance; sure enough, when I revisited the scene of the celebratory party in Kane’s office, I discovered that Welles had  packed far more thematic substance and nuance into a couple of minutes than most other directors could achieve in an entire reel.  

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

And that’s true of most of his films. Take The Lady from Shanghai, now restored and getting a re-release. Made in 1947, during the heyday of film noir, the film is famous for a plot so complex that it’s virtually unintelligible, and for its virtuoso climax in a fairground’s hall of mirrors. But it is also sometimes dismissed as a bit throwaway, a little too tongue-in-cheek, as if Welles were to be faulted for having a sense of humour. That feels unfair to me: one of the marvellous things about the movie is that it works very effectively both as a traditional if faintly baroque film noir – it has the requisite loser (Welles) falling for the requisite femme fatale (his then wife Rita Hayworth, giving one of her finest dramatic performances) and tumbling fatalistically into the requisite maelstrom of greed, twisted desire and deadly intrigue – and as a sly, witty commentary on noir conventions.

Indeed, The Lady from Shanghai is especially impressive on two fronts. First, like all his best work, it’s notable for how Welles simply packs so much more into any scene than we’ve come to expect and accept from other directors; at one given moment, due to the sheer density of the image and the soundtrack and to the subtlety of their relationship to one another, there’s so much more to take in and think about. Second, the film finds Welles at his most playful. Famously, in 1940, having been invited by RKO to make his first feature, he exclaimed: “This is the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” Watching a Welles film, one is constantly aware of his deep love of his medium, but with Lady it feels as if he’s completely intoxicated by his passion for cinema and its enormous expressive potential; he’s high on being in love with a hugely popular and still young and developing artform that allows him to work whatever magic and indulge in whatever mischievous trickery he likes. And that love is wickedly contagious. See the film – repeatedly, if you can – and I think you’ll see what I mean.

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