Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Lady from Shanghai

          Rita Hayworth stars as the blond bombshell from Shanghai

Orson Welles would have been a hundred years old this week, had he not shuffled off our mortal coil at age 70 from (among other things) the endless complications of morbid obesity.  Given that I am once again adrift on the Horse Latitudes of unemployment, today's post will digress from the usual subject of life on set to appreciate one of his brilliant, flawed, and very much under-appreciated movies -- a film that had a massive impact on me during a crucial part of my young life.  

There's a useful term to describe a book that's unlikely to win accolades from the wine-sniffing snobs of the literary upper-crust or top the must-read lists at the Iowa Writers Workshop, but tells an interesting story that sets the hook early and won't let you go until the last page has been turned. 

Such a book is called "a good read" -- and that's the kind of book I like.

I wish there was a cinematic equivalent: a phrase or term for a well-crafted movie with an involving plot, terrific cinematography, and is perfectly cast with compelling leads and  supporting actors -- a movie that keeps you glued to the screen all the way through the end credits.* Those movies don't always win Oscars, since the little golden men are destined for trendier, edgier, more popular and/or larger grossing features -- but as far as I'm concerned, they're what make going to the movies worthwhile.

The Lady from Shanghai is that kind of movie.

Yes, it was made way back in1948, and shot in black-and-white. There are no hair-raising CGI - enhanced car chases, no comic-book heroes with extraordinary super-powers, nor any huge explosions. Although there's plenty of sexual tension and intrigue, there are no steaming hot sex scenes, and what violence occurs is brief and exceedingly tame compared to the routine blood-letting of modern films. The special effects are clunky by current standards, and some of the shot transitions feel awkwardly abrupt -- whether due to budgetary limitations, confusion on set during the frenzy of filming, or chopped-up prints being all that's after nearly seventy years, I can't say.  

Given all that, I doubt many readers of this blog would be interested in seeing it. But that's a real shame, because as older movies go, Lady from Shanghai is absolutely terrific: in literary terms, it's a really good read. Orson Welles made this movie -- he wrote it (with some help), produced, and directed -- and just about anything Welles did is worth seeing.

As I heard the story back in school, Welles owed a movie to Columbia Studios and the legendary Harry Cohn to fulfill his contract, but was way overdue in meeting that obligation. In response to an angry telegram, he called the studio on a drugstore pay-phone from somewhere in the mid-west, then had to come up with something on the spot to placate the executive on the other end of the line --  a man who insisted on knowing exactly what the film project would be. Looking around for inspiration, Welles supposedly spotted a potboiler titled "The Lady from Shanghai" on the drugstore book rack, and blurted out the title, promising that the script would soon be on that executive's desk.  

Maybe that story is true and maybe not, but such a spontaneous decision by Welles might explain the convoluted plot of "Lady from Shanghai," which creates more questions than it answers.  Still, the genius of Welles was such that it just doesn't matter. The movie he delivered is so visually stunning, and the characters so vivid -- in one notable case, bizarre** -- that you just hang on tight and go along for the ride. There's a little bit of everything in this film, including a courthouse trial scene unlike any you've ever seen. After building a career on her trademark long red hair, Rita Hayworth blew everybody's mind at the time by appearing as a very sexy, short-haired blond -- a stunning transformation that really worked. This is not some B picture melodrama, but a fascinating, inventive, and highly entertaining movie that's an absolute blast to watch.  I pop my copy in the DVD player every couple of years, and it never disappoints.  

             Glenn Anders as "Grisby" in Lady from Shanghai

It helps that the well-oiled studio system was still going strong in 1948, when "Lady" was made. The high standards of craftsmanship in casting, wardrobe, set design, set dressing, lighting, camera, and locations (a significant portion of the film was shot in Mexico, on a yacht, and in San Francisco) -- shines through every frame.  

The New York Times review at the time noted the movie's virtues: 

"For the idea, at least, is a corker and the Wellesian ability to direct a good cast against fascinating backgrounds has never been better displayed.  It's the story of a roving merchant seaman who falls in with some over-rich worldlings and who almost becomes the innocent victims of their murderous hates and jealousies.  And for its sheer visual modeling of burning passions in faces, forms and attitudes, galvanized within picturesque surroundings, it might almost match "Citizen Kane."

Still, the Gray Lady's film reviewer was only half right -- he didn't care for the courtroom scene or much else after the first half hour.  Well, fuck him.  For me, the weaknesses of Lady from Shanghai are minimal compared to its cinematic strengths -- and there the U.S. edition of Britain's The Guardian has my back.

Some of you have probably seen the famous final scene -- a shootout filmed in a funhouse hall of mirrors -- but I'm not going to post it for one very good reason: once you've watched that scene, you'll think you've seen the best of Lady from Shanghai, and are likely to blow off viewing the entire movie.  That would be a mistake, because as good as the final scene is, there's so much more great stuff leading up to it -- and that build-up is part of what makes the finale so impressive and satisfying. Watching the clip would be like flipping to the end of a good book to find out how it ends rather than do the very pleasurable work of reading the damned thing. Do it right -- watch the movie. Those who take the Utube shortcut will only cheat themselves out of a very good experience.

Last week's post related how my first film class turned the course of my life towards Hollywood, and in retrospect, it's clear that seeing Lady from Shanghai played a big part in that. The movie simply blew me away -- I'd never seen anything like it.  Until then, I'd had no idea an old black and white movie could be so good. The next two years of school taught me what I'd been missing out on: a generation of great movies.

Quite an education, that.

With pilot season grinding to a halt soon, and features yet to return to LA en masse, we'll all have some time on our hands before long.  If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and carve out ninety minutes some evening to watch Lady from Shanghai  -- you'll have a great time, and it just might open your eyes.

Now that I think about it, it's time I watched it again...

* If there is such a term, I'm not aware of it, but there may be.  In that case, please enlighten me…

** I won't even bother attempting to describe Glenn Anders' astonishing performance in this movie -- you'll just have to see it to believe it.

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