A social media meme depicts an image of the Fab Four with the perfect response to Beatles naysayers: “Sorry we set the bar so high.” So it is also withand those who deny his mastery of the medium—it’s merely a case of being too too envious to recognize an inimitable artist. As a narrative filmmaker (albeit an experimental one) Welles gets equally little love from the avant-garde, much in the same way the modern painter Francis Bacon was seen as a sellout because he continued figurative painting in a non-representational age. Welles hardly helped his own status with stunts like whoring himself out as an actor; his fingernails-down-chalkboard interviews with ; wine commercials; and his cheesy Nostradamus documentaries (although he should be given a gold star for his frequent guest appearances on the ultra cool Dean Martin roasts). Because Welles’ antagonistic relationship with Hollywood is almost legendary, the status quo’s acknowledgment of his body of work has been primarily posthumous. It was with 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai that he almost intentionally immolated himself, bidding adios to Tinsel Town.
The Lady from Shanghai was birthed from desperation. Welles’ Mercury Theater production of “Around the World in Eighty Days” was threatened with a shutdown when $55,000 worth of costumes were impounded due to outstanding debts. Seeing a copy of Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles had a eureka moment. He called Columbia head Harry Cohn, suggested he purchase the rights to the book, and offered to adapt, direct, and act in it for the money needed to pay off the costumes. Smelling a three-for-one deal, Cohn wired Welles the cash. He later came to regret it, vowing never again to hire someone in such a triple capacity again because it prevented him from firing such an upstart.
The production was as chaotic as the film itself, as documented in numerous anecdotes by associate producer. The hot Mexico shoot caused actors to be ill, including Hayworth, which delayed shooting for a month. Welles himself was incapacitated for a period when an insect bit him in the eye. Crocodiles, barracudas, and poisonous barnacles posed additional threats. Unwisely, Welles rented his pal ‘s yacht “The Zaca.” In addition to overcharging, Flynn’s contractual agreement stipulated he be present for all scenes involving the boat, and he demanded to shoot the aerial footage of the Zaca himself—and he was, per his norm, prone to disappear for days on end, thus further delaying the production ((A colorful production story that has made the rounds: early into shooting, a camera assistant died on set of heart failure. Flynn, predictably drunk, attempted to put the corpse in a duffel bag and throw it into the sea. Fortunately, Welles managed to alert the authorities in time to barely avert an intoxicated burial)).
Welles rewrote the script daily and was a tyrant to the cast, antagonizing them in order to solicit edgier, improvised performances. Towards the end of production, Welles wanted a set repainted. Told that this was impossible due to union fees, he repainted it himself over a weekend. When the painters arrived on Monday to find the repainted set, they threatened a strike, demanding to be paid weekend triple time for the work Welles himself had done. Amazingly, the studio caved into the painters, paid them, and billed the director.
The Lady From Shanghai was a commercial and critical flop on release, with widespread outrage directed towards Welles for daring to crop and bleach the hair of wife and leading redhead Rita Hayworth (and we think today’s audiences are a silly lot). Cohn, who had hoped to cash in on Hayworth’s pinup appeal as well as her star turn in the previous year’s hit Gilda, was as infuriated by the complex script as he was by the casting sabotage. He infamously offered a reward of $1,000.00 to anyone who could explain the plot to him. Fearing a box office disaster, Cohn hired editor Viola Lawrence to cut approximately 70 minutes from the film, unintentionally rendering it even more surreal. He also inserted glamour shots of Hayworth, shelved the entire thing for a year, and then relegated the movie to second-billing, guaranteeing a commercial loss.
Welles, hardly the image of Irish machismo, bizarrely cast himself as the naive-but-tough, seafaring Michael O’Hara. In this setting, we buy it, even with the intentionally woeful accent (Welles originally wanted dissonant sound for the film, including strained dialogue, which Cohn and the sound department fixed with re-dubbing). It fits the almost inexplicably queer paradoxes of the entire hideous aesthetic. Michael meets the succubus Elsa Bannister (Hayworth), is aroused by the sight of her in a carriage, plays the part of a dark knight defending her against misogynistic thugs, and is soon dismayed to learn that she’s married. Naturally, their paths cross again when he’s employed by her brilliantly slimy, handicapped hubby and lawyer Arthur (Everett Sloane).
Aboard Arthur’s yacht (the Zaca) Michael and Elsa have an affair. Being perhaps the quintessential example of film noir, there’s going to be murder and betrayal afoot. But the film is almost equally anti-noir, so it’s put across in Welles’ weirdly heterodox fashion.
Welles’ directing is much discussed, but his acting here, along with Hayworth’s, is equally impressive (although the couple was estranged—divorcing shortly after filming—they were amiable, and jointly conspired to provoke Cohn). Michael’s’ naïveté and Elsa’s manipulations are choreographed to contrasting visuals. Elsa teems with sexual tension in a bathing suit against a rocky background, iced in white dress, black dress, and a black and white dress; the pair plot in muddled, overlapping dialogue against a backdrop of sea creatures in an aquarium (which were shot separately and enlarged to make them more fearsome).
The hall-of-mirrors shoot-out (patterned after the expressionist sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is justifiably famous and has been written about to the point of tedium. It’s merely the cherry on top. Games of chess, a gloriously absurd courtroom vignette (with closeups filmed through wide-angle lenses for distortion, courtesy of Welles and cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.), and a pragmatic antagonist add up to typical emasculated Welles. Its patchy coarseness cannot white-out its individualism, but the filmmaker was able to essentially recapture this sensibility in his last hurrah for a major studio: 1958’s Touch of Evil.