Welles bids farewell to Hayworth and Hollywood
With Wong Kar Wai’s remake of The Lady from Shanghai (1948) set for release in 2008, it is a fitting time to re-evaluate Orson Welles’ original. An adaptation of Sherwood King’s novel If I Die Before I Wake, Welles’ fourth feature was dismissed as a B-movie — technically true, as Columbia relegated it to second billing on its belated release — and it lost the studio money.1 However, filmed only five years after the canonical byword that is Citizen Kane (1941), The Lady from Shanghai provides rich rewards for those who approach it without preconceived notions about Welles and his consensual triumphs and failures. Featuring Welles himself and his estranged wife Rita Hayworth in the leads, the film succeeds both as a poignant postscript to their marriage — they would be divorced by the time the film was released — and as a reflection of his dilemma working within the Hollywood studio system. It even portends his approaching, self-imposed exile therefrom. Above all, though, the film represents perhaps Welles’ most formally masterful exploration of the cinematic medium. As Simon Callow observes in his magisterial biography of Welles, “it was as if Welles’ cinematic imagination, shackled on The Stranger and unused during his long fallow period of political commentary, had run riot.”2
The Lady from Shanghai was a commercial failure, undoubtedly: it cost just under $2 million to make, and grossed less than $1.5 million.3 However, this can be at least partly attributed to Columbia’s treatment of the film. Choosing to shelve it for a year — a studio tactic notorious for becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — they then bumped it to second-billing status on its release. Audiences and critics alike took their cue. Bosley Crowther wrote of Welles in his New York Times review that “this gentleman certainly has a strange way of marring his films with sloppiness.”4 The charge of sloppiness was one that arose from the film’s complex narrative. Crowther complained that the “triple-cross murder plot designed to entrap the sailor is a thoroughly confused and baffling thing. Tension is recklessly permitted to drain off in a sieve of tangled plot.”5 He may have had fewer reservations had he been aware that the film had suffered no fewer than sixty-nine minutes of cuts, made by the usurping editor, Viola Lawrence, at Columbia’s request. However, David Thomson, who also accuses the film of “laziness” in his idiosyncratic biography of Welles, is fully aware of the film’s production history, but seems to attach little significance to the studio’s intervention.6 Indeed, his misapprehension appears to arise from his very knowledge of the film’s genesis. It appears that Welles was committed to Harry Cohn, the Columbia production chief, to make a picture in return for a loan he needed to complete his cherished theatrical project, Around the World in 80 Days.Welles suggested an adaptation of If I Die Before I Wake. Thomson cites what is, by his own admission, a possibly apocryphal tale that Welles, telephoning Cohn for the money, offered to make a picture in return, and grabbed the nearest book to hand for a suitable project.7 However, Welles’ machinations suggest he was a little more determined on the book than that. The terms of his loan stipulated that “in the event that you [Columbia] in your sole discretion do not like or cannot acquire said property [If I Die Before I Wake] on terms completely satisfactory to you, then I shall render my services in any other property which is mutually acceptable”.8 Apparently Welles did not take any chances: the loan deal was dated April 26, 1946; by the end of May, he had himself obtained the rights from the author, and sold them to Columbia for one dollar.
Welles’ interest in the book seems to have derived from what he saw as an opportunity to cast Hayworth as the quintessential noir femme fatale opposite himself as the patsy. He wrote to William Castle, who would become the film’s associate producer: “About If I Should Die [sic] — I love it. . . . I have been searching for an idea for a film, but none presented itself until If I Should Die and I could play the lead and Rita Hayworth could play the girl.”9 Hayworth was Columbia’s biggest star; both she and Welles were contracted to make a picture for the studio: Cohn was happy for them to make one together — a decision he may have come to regret. Welles’ first crime was to have Hayworth’s signature auburn locks cut, waved, and dyed blonde, but worse was to come. The film’s narrative featured a perverse ménage a quatre, in which a trio of satellites — Michael (Welles), Bannister, and Grisby — orbit about Bannister’s wife, Elsa (Hayworth). Elsa is a trophy wife for the rich Bannister, and there is some suggestion that Grisby — nominally Bannister’s partner, but in every way, his subordinate — has helped procure her for him, by using her questionable past against her. Michael is the new attraction to whom Elsa appeals for help. This must all have had worrying echoes for Cohn. For Hayworth was Cohn’s girl, created by him, and under contract to him. The girl he had helped become America’s sweetheart “was not quite what she seemed.”10 She was actually Hispanic, having been born Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino in Brooklyn, New York. After being signed by Columbia, Cohn changed her name and got Max Factor to significantly alter her Latin appearance by raising her hairline through “a strenuous regime of electrolysis” and dying her hair to the iconic red.11 Nor did the auburn bombshell persona that Cohn created for her reflect her true character. According to Thomson, Hayworth was a “bereft, traumatized” young woman, who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father, with whom she had toured in a Mexican dance act from the age of twelve.12 Marrying Edward Judson at eighteen, she was signed to Columbia the same year, where Judson pimped her out to the powerful Cohn. As Thomson writes, “she was the creation of Judson and Cohn, with the husband offering her to the mogul as bedmate.”13 Enter the boy wonder, Orson Welles, as antidote to abuse and exploitation. Watching The Lady from Shanghai, audiences do not have to search hard for the parallels; nor is it likely they were lost on Cohn. Thomson allows that the film’s narrative “was alluding to Hayworth’s ugly past and to her being a kind of slave to Harry Cohn.”14 Kevin Jack Hagopian goes further in Images, speculating that Columbia’s treatment of the film was a case of wilful sabotage, that “a pained Cohn saw the parallels between the Michael-Elsa-Bannister triangle in the film and the Welles-Hayworth-Cohn armature in real life, and was instinctively reacting to paralyse his rival.”15
If Elsa could double for Hayworth, then Michael too, seems to offer up a mirror to his creator. Welles was indebted to Cohn and Columbia, just as Michael is compelled to work for Bannister and Grisby. Michael the free spirit — “I’ve always found it very sanitary to be broke” — reflects Welles the Hollywood nonconformist; and just as Michael is forced to lower himself in order to be able to afford Elsa, so was Welles increasingly forced to compromise in order to make films. Welles has Bannister chide the complacent Michael:
Bannister: So, money doesn’t interest you. Are you independently wealthy?
Michael: I’m independent.
Bannister: Of money? Before you start that novel Elsa says you’re going to write, you’d better learn something. You’ve been travelling around the world too much to find out anything about it . . .
Michael: I’ve always found it very sanitary to be broke.
Bannister: . . . Money cannot bring you health and happiness, etc. Is that it? Without money, I’d be flat on my back in the ward of a county hospital . . . Each man has his own idea of happiness, of course, but money is what all of us have in common . . . You call yourself independent. Come around and see me five years from now.
The compulsion to make money in order to survive is shared by everyone in the film. Michael fakes Grisby’s death for five thousand dollars with which to support Elsa. Grisby requires his partner’s insurance payoff in order to decamp to paradise. Bessie, the Bannisters’ maid, relies on her meagre wage to support her family at the most basic level. Bannister depends on his millions to come between him and a county hospital ward. And Elsa, like all femme fatales, requires money as reparation for her past experience of the world: “Everything’s bad, Michael, everything. You can’t escape it or fight it. You’ve got to get along with it. Deal with it, make terms.”
Welles’ dismay at the material dependence of dream and dignity alike, the constant demand to compromise the self and its values, punctuates the narrative with a staccato insistence. And he so often bathes the characters’ desperate intrigues in the harsh, unforgiving glare of the sun that their evasions and manipulations are nakedly apparent. As Michael laments while gazing on Acapulco — moments after a passing gigolo has told his consort, “Darling, of course you pay me!” — “it’s a bright, guilty world.”
Nowhere is the theme of regressive material hunger made more manifest than in the figure of Elsa. Thomson makes the spurious claim that her characterization is misogynistic, but the noir femme fatale is by its nature, deceptive, duplicitous, and acquisitive.16 Moreover, Elsa’s need to control her environment is made sympathetic by the rapaciousness of her companions, Bannister, Grisby, and Broome, and by the insidious, suggestive power with which Hayworth reminds the audience that those companions, poisonous as they are, represent a sanctuary from past and worse indignities. Hayworth was never better than in delivering the line, “You need more than luck in Shanghai.” The quiet conviction with which she says this, her voice and eyes hardening, bespeaks a litany of indignities and exploitation. It is hard at that moment not to think of little Margarita Cansino touring the country, dancing nightly in the arms of her father. It is equally tempting to interpret Elsa’s plaintive description of her relationship with Michael, when she is questioned in court — “He was very respectful . . and I think he was fond of me” — as a summation of the Hayworth-Welles marriage. Crowther wrote acidly in his review that “even Rita Hayworth . . . is entirely adequate to the requirement of looking ravishing and acting vague,” but in fact, and as the title suggests, The Lady from Shanghai is Hayworth’s film, at least in terms of performance. Callow asserts that Welles “genuinely admired her as an actress and was determined to extend her range,” and this perhaps explains why he makes her the still, visual centre of the film.17 She is helped by cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.’s treatment of her, which is a revelation. She was never more beautiful, nor ever quite the same. Welles captures her at moments of childlike vulnerability — such as when Michael slaps her; but conversely, there are other moments when he records a malevolent beauty, an otherness, unrecognisable as Hayworth but quintessentially femme fatale. As Thomson writes, Welles’ camera witnesses “a grimness to her face and mouth, a severity in the eyes,” and while Thomson sees that as a symptom of a husband’s resentment, it is entirely in keeping with the character; she is never, as Thomson suggests, “shot with a fascinated loathing.”18 There is too much tenderness and baffled sympathy in the camera’s gaze for that to be a fair accusation. The photography of Hayworth, like so much of the film’s formal surface, is simply unprecedented.
The film’s credits open over a seascape. As the first scene then plunges the audience into New York’s Central Park, the opening shot may seem incongruous, but it introduces perhaps the predominant theme of the movie: the false promise of escape. The sea summons reveries of the “far places” that Michael will later idealise as the source of escape — from mendacity, interference, and confusion — and that Elsa already knows break any such promise they seem to offer. In fact, Bannister too knows the folly of seeking deliverance through flight: as he warns Michael, “You’ve been travelling around the world too much to find out anything about it.” Only Grisby shares Michael’s fantasy of the far places, intending to escape the nuclear annihilation he predicts by vanishing to “the smallest island in the South Seas.” The absurdity of this idea would have been especially obvious to contemporary audiences, as the United States began a series of nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the South Seas in 1946, earlier in the very year the picture was filmed. Thus, the opening shot of a beckoning sea is surprisingly in harmony with the opening scene of a mugging in Central Park, that urban space so redolent of balmy picnics — the lunch hour escape — by day, so symbolic of human horrors by night.
The casual viewer could be forgiven for failing to recognize these associations, because the opening scene features one of the most dynamic sequences of cinematography ever conceived. The crane shot that portrays Michael and Elsa as he drives her in a horse-drawn carriage — he sat atop, she sat inside beneath — out of Central Park to her car, is as audacious as anything in Citizen Kane, and far more challenging and less prosaic than the much more famous opening shot of Touch of Evil(1958). Hagopian records that this “was the longest crane shot yet attempted in Hollywood; Welles’ harried camerman was ordered to keep Welles/Michael and Rita/Elsa in focus for three-quarters of a mile.”19 The genius of the shot is that it asserts the potential of film to surmount any practical obstacle. Elsa and Michael’s flirtatious exchange is documented in exacting detail, the camera rising or falling as it literally follows the dialogue of each character, so that they are shown in relative isolation, as their verbal responses fail to reflect their emotional reactions: when Elsa says that “you need more than luck in Shanghai,” only the audience can see the emotion on her face. Finally, the sequence establishes their paradoxical proximity by showing the two in the same frame, Michael pictured beyond Elsa through the hatchway above her head. It is at this moment as they are graphically brought together that Michael decides to climb below and drive the carriage from inside with Elsa. Technically, the shot is minutely planned and difficult to achieve, but its actual effect is one of genuine naturalism, as the audience is given a privileged seat from which to observe the characters in all their psychological minutiae, and where it is able to witness both their interpersonal and intrapersonal reactions. What might be a scene that draws attention to the director and cinematographer actually favours the actors’ performances, providing a level of intimacy that an audience could not usually expect of such demanding camera coverage. It is certainly not what Pauline Kael accuses Welles of in Raising Kane: “technique ‘for its own sake’.”20 Nor does it suggest the “boredom, laziness or impatience in its maker” that Thomson finds in the film.21 The emphasis on the spatial relationship between characters is continued in the next scene, but this time it is no longer the camera but the actors’ blocking that achieves the figural complexity of the mise-en-scene. Michael and Elsa exit the carriage and he walks her to a car park to collect her car. They talk about a famous lawyer, Arthur Bannister, notorious for brazenly defending murderers. As Elsa’s car pulls up alongside them, Elsa tells the attendant to send the bill to her husband — a brief reverse shot shows Michael’s consternation that she is married. As Elsa asks Michael if he would like to work for her, she is facing the camera, framed over his shoulder. He then steps around and beyond Elsa to open the car door for her, turning to face the camera with a cold expression as Elsa turns to face him, Michael now framed over her shoulder. So the shot has been reversed within the same camera set-up by the movement of the actors. Thus their figural relationship reflects the shifting power dynamics at play between them as first Elsa assumes the dominant role — by simultaneously informing Michael that she is married, asking him to work for her, and implying extra-financial recompense — only for Michael to wrest it from her by affecting indifference and rebuffing her in the harshest terms.
The blocking becomes even more elaborately choreographed as Elsa drives away. Michael begins to exit the garage, the camera tracking him from the left. As he does so, a previously unseen figure emerges from behind the pillar at which Michael and Elsa have had their exchange. This figure follows Michael and passes to his right, announcing “Some dame, ain’t she?,” to which a third figure — the car park attendant who emerges to Michael’s left — answers “Yeah, and some car.” The stranger crosses the shot from left to right, passing between Michael and the camera, which tracks with him ever so slightly to reveal a fourth figure, whom he identifies by saying “Good evening, Mister Grisby,” in an insinuating tone — the audience will soon learn that these two men are Broome and Grisby, associates of Elsa and her husband. Grisby looks discomforted by the mention of his name, and exits from right to left of frame, crossing in his turn between Michael and camera, leaving Michael alone with the attendant, who now identifies Elsa as the wife of Bannister, the infamous lawyer, as Michael stares ruminatively after her departing car. In this way, the mise-en-scene is expressive of Michael’s position as the locus around which the other characters spin their machinations, himself always in possession of less information than they are.
The figural density of mise-en-scene continues throughout the film, as multiple figures or faces occupy the same shot in back/mid/foreground to form a kind of decoupage that allows Welles to repeatedly emphasize the theme of humans compulsively preying on one another — financially, psychically, sexually — like the sharks in the tale Michael tells to the Bannisters:
A few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishin’. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was, and then there was another, and another shark again, till all about the sea was made of sharks, and more sharks still, and the water tall. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleedin’ his life away, drove the rest of ’em mad. Then the beasts took to eatin’ each other; in their frenzy, they ate at themselves.
If the visual design of the film is indicative of its thematic concerns, then the use of sound is equally expressive. Thomson erroneously identifies the sound design as a weakness, arguing that in Welles’ scenes with Hayworth in particular, “there is no contact or intimacy. . Welles’ talk sounds postsynchronized, and we feel he is miles and months away, in a dubbing studio.”22 This assertion is surprising as it ignores Thomson’s own veneration of Welles as a radio artist, as a master manipulator of sound. The sound is postsynchronized, and there is indeed an absence of “contact or intimacy” between all the principal characters. However, this aural disassociation ingeniously underlines their essential loneliness and alienation from one another. Often, the dialogue itself has the character of rhetoric, the words spoken seeming to require no response from friend or foe alike. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the scene where Bannister lectures Michael on the harsh necessity of money by summoning his maid, Bessie, as an example:
Bannister: Take Bessie here. She used to work for Bacharach — I pay her more. Don’t I, Bessie?
Bessie: Yes, Mister Bannister.
Bannister: Her salary means happiness. It means a home; three rooms for two families. Bessie’s a grandmother and a widow, and only one of the boys is working. Isn’t that right, Bessie?
Bessie: Yes Sir.
Bannister: Yes, of course it is. So Bessie goes to church every Sunday she gets off, and prays to God she’ll never be too old to earn the salary I pay her.
There is no emotional connection between Bannister and Bessie; she serves rather as a mannequin with which to model his preconceived world view: that of primacy through capital. Financial relationships nullify the need for emotional contact. It is a view shared by all the main characters, with the exception of Michael, and so when they speak to one another, to Michael, or he to them, the sound design almost literally echoes their isolation. It is as if their words are spoken into a void, reaching no one, so that even in their rare moments of longing when they really do try to connect with one another — Bannister with his wife, or she with Michael — the attempted intimacy dissolves in the barren sonic distances that separate them.
The editorial mauling that The Lady from Shanghai suffered at the hands of the studio is a great shame, resulting in a film that is, in Callow’s view, “compromised, butchered, coarsened, cheapened.”23 However, as Chris Justice asserts in Senses of Cinema,“the film’s remaining 87 minutes represent some of the best in American art-house cinema.”24 Thomson writes disparagingly of the film’s “narrative fragmentation,” which he attributes to Welles writing the script “very hastily . . . working with a speed that showed some disdain for the story,” and argues that the studio cuts were necessary to make sense of the narrative.25 But this fragmentation is still evident in the final cut, despite the studio’s best efforts, so it is quite possible that Welles constructed the narrative in an intentionally fragmented way. As has already been shown, the mise-en-scene itself is of an artfully jumbled and chaotic design. In both narrative and formal aesthetic, the film reflects the manic duplicity of all the characters except Michael, who whirl in a vortex of mendacity and betrayal in which they are hardly able to retain their own equilibrium. This reaches its apotheosis in the hall of mirrors shoot-out, where Elsa and Bannister’s murder of one another amidst a visual and aural cacophony of shattered mirrors echoes their psychic fragmentation. As Justice puts it, “not only are their bodies being terminated, but their self-images, self-esteem, and personal legacies as well.”26 The same scene can also be seen as a visual summation of Welles’ feelings about film-making within the studio system: duplicity and the resultant schizophrenia precluding the achievement of a cogent, comprehensible vision. When Michael enters the hall of mirrors, the distorted images of Welles suggest the potential loss of selfhood implicit in the pursuit of capital — even with which to make films. The only legitimate tactic, he seems to suggest, is to refuse compromise all together — before he descends into the hall of mirrors, Michael twice passes signs that say “STAND UP OR GIVE UP.” His final dialogue with the dying Elsa might stand as his future manifesto of filmmaking:
Michael: You said the world’s bad; we can’t run away from the badness. And you’re right there. But you said we can’t fight it. We must deal with the badness, make terms. And then the badness’ll deal with you, and make its own terms, in the end, surely.
Elsa: You can fight, but what good is it? Goodbye.
Michael: You mean we can’t win?
Elsa: No, we can’t win. Give my love to the sunrise.
Michael: We can’t lose, either. Only if we quit.
Elsa: And you’re not going to.
Michael: Not again!
The final shot, with appropriately uplifting, ascending crane shot, shows Welles emerge from the den of duplicity, free of Bannister/Cohn and Elsa/Hayworth, to stride purposely into the future (though he does indulge himself with a fond adieu to Hayworth: “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying”). The film marked the end of Welles’ Hollywood career; he chose to go off to the “far places” to continue making films. He returned only once to the studio system, eleven years later, to make Touch of Evil, which would suffer the same fate as The Lady from Shanghai, being heavily recut against his wishes and consigned to a wholly inappropriate second billing.
- Sherwood King, If I Die Before I Wake (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938). [↩]
- Simon Callow, Orson Welles — Hello Americans (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 357. [↩]
- David Thomson, Rosebud, the Story of Orson Welles (London: Abacus, 2005), 280. [↩]
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, June 10, 1948. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Thomson, 277. [↩]
- Ibid., 274. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., 275. [↩]
- Ibid., 50. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., 279. [↩]
- Kevin Jack Hagopian, “The Lady from Shanghai,” Images Journal, Issue 2, 1996. [↩]
- Thomson, 277. [↩]
- Callow, 356. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Hagopian. [↩]
- Pauline Kael, Raising Kane (London: Methuen, 2002), 137. [↩]
- Thomson, 277. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Callow, 365. [↩]
- Chris Justice, “The Lady from Shanghai,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 36, 2005. [↩]
- Thomson, 276. [↩]
- Justice. [↩]