Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mirror Phase

The Lady from Shanghai: adapted by Orson Welles, William Castle, Charles Lederer, and Fletcher Markle from the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King; directed by Orson Welles; starring Orson Welles (Michael O'Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), and Glenn Anders (George Grisby) (1947): Welles wrote, directed, and starred in this movie so as to secure $55,000 to mount a Mercury Theatre stage production of Around the World in 80 Days. Somewhere in the making of it, he seems to have decided to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock. And in many ways he succeeds, though I have a feeling that the original Director's Cut of 155 minutes (this version runs 87 minutes, which is just about right and maybe even a bit long) was probably unbearable.

Welles adopts a generic Irish accent for this movie, a decision that mostly eliminates his trademark baritone delivery. He's an itinerant sailor named Michael O'Hara who gets mixed up in the affairs of criminal-defense lawyer Arthur Bannister, eponymous trophy wife Elsa Bannister, and Bannister's weaselly partner George Grisby.

Some of Welles's choices for how the actors play their parts would later arise in Touch of Evil. Grisby and Arthur Bannister are both constructed around annoying tics, stagey business with Bannister's crutches, and in Grisby's case an astonishingly annoying manner of speech. The weirdness of these grotesque touches seems to foreshadow the work of the Coen Brothers and David Lynch, two directors who seem much more Wellesian to me than they're generally given credit for.

The plot contains many Hitchcockian tropes -- the innocent man accused of a crime, a luminous blonde love interest (Hayworth, her trademark long hair shorn for this picture), exotic or unusual locations, and odd yet compelling staging of key scenes. A love scene in an aquarium and the concluding shoot-out in a Hall of Mirrors are the most famous setpieces in The Lady from Shanghai, the latter much imitated in later films and television programs. I don't think this is a great film, but it's darned peculiar and interesting, and seems much more modern than many other films of the same era. Highly recommended.

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