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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 10/20/00



The Lady from Shanghai
Columbia Classics - 1948 (2000) - Columbia TriStar

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

The Lady from Shanghai Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/A-

Specs and Features

87 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, A Discussion with Peter Bogdanovich featurette, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailers (for The Lady from Shanghai, The Loves of Carmen and The Last Hurrah), gallery of vintage advertising material, film themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese (DD mono), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, Closed Captioned

Since I've been writing about movies, I've gotten a lot of e-mails from, and have had many conversations with, film students. I get requests about what movies I think are important to see, general genre-related questions or even questions from people who just want to see different films than are churned out of the Hollywood mill. The single most common thing I hear from these film students, is that they all want to be the next Orson Welles. I can't tell you how many times someone has said that exact statement to me. Hell... I've probably even said it. The only problem with that, is that no one TRULY wants to be the next Orson Welles. Think about it - that'd be Hell on Earth for a filmmaker. People may want his talent, his verve or even his presence, but no one in their right mind would want his career.

The nutshell edition of Orson's life story is thus: he made a name for himself in theater, conceptualizing and mounting productions so bold that, at a very young age, the word "genius" was often associated with him. On Halloween 1938, his Mercury Theater Company performed War of the Worlds as a radio play, scaring everyone who heard its realistic news tone and eyewitness accounts. Hollywood took notice and Wells got a very nice deal at RKO. His first production was Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's nihilistic novel that Coppola and Milius based Apocalypse Now on. Welles' version was going to be one of the most shocking things ever put on celluloid. It was to be a film told in first person, where the camera was the main character, Marlow, and the events would be seen from our/his perspective. The trickery was, if Marlow walked by a mirror or a window, Welles' reflection would be seen. The script is really marvelous and it's a shame the film was killed. Production began for a short period of time, but Welles' insistence on building sets full size and casting real Africans as tribesmen was considered too big a risk. A few other productions were mounted, but studio interference or fate killed them as well. Eventually, Welles started production on Citizen Kane, and if it weren't for political motivations behind-the-scenes, Welles may have had a very different career. His mirroring of the life of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst placed Welles on an unspoken blacklist of sorts and he had trouble getting cooperation from RKO (or any other studio) afterwards. His eventual production of The Magnificent Ambersons was wrapped up and reedited without his participation, after he was sent off on assignment on a different production (the ill-fated It's All True). From then and there, Wells experienced nothing but heavy-handed dealings with studio executives. In the end, despite his political head-butting, box-office failures and a reputation as a hack, Welles received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award and the Directors Guild of America awarded him its highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award. He died in 1985 of heart failure.

That's not exactly a life all of us could handle. But for a true artist, appreciation comes later in life and this has proven true for Welles. A few of his films lie uncompleted or lost, but the ones that have been released are being seen by new audiences and are gaining even more appreciation. Welles was always ahead of his time... and maybe his time is now.

Today, we're going to look two films that have recently come out on DVD and which serve as a nice bookend of the story of Welles. The first film, which we'll deal with in this review, was The Lady From Shanghai and it was doomed from the start.

In the mid-40s, Welles was using his wunderkind status to get plays going, and he was working on a pretty ambitious version of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days when he hit a blockade. He needed $50,000 to get the show's costumes out of the shipping port. He turned to Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, who just happened to be his estranged wife's (Rita Hayworth) boss - and Hayworth was Cohn's biggest star. The deal was, if Cohn would lend Welles the money, Welles would write and produce a film for Columbia. First, he pitched what would go on to become The Loves of Carmen, but, at the time, Cohn rejected the idea. When asked what other properties he had, he turned to a book rack and rattled off the name of the closest one he could read: If I Die Before Before I Wake. He didn't know who owned it - he didn't even know what it was about. But Cohn optioned the book and the project was green-lit.

Once Around the World crashed and burned after a short run, Welles headed out to Hollywood to fulfill his obligation. He wrote the script for If I Die, renaming it The Lady from Shanghai, and was ready to cast the picture. Hayworth wasn't originally supposed to be cast as the female lead in the film, but it seemed like a perfect pairing and she actually pushed for the role. Welles didn't have a problem with it and neither did Cohn, so all was well. Hayworth saw it as a good opportunity for them to re-ignite their rocky marriage (it didn't work). Cohn saw it as a surefire way of making money (it didn't work) and for Welles, The Lady from Shanghai was supposed to be an opportunity to get back into Hollywood's good graces (that didn't work either).

"Everybody is somebody's fool."

The Lady From Shanghai follows "Black Irish" Mike O'Hara (Welles). He bumps into Rita Hayworth's character, Elsa Bannister, as she takes a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride through the park. She is so beautiful, that Mike just has to offer her a cigarette. From then on, things spiral out of control. O'Hara is a sailor, a deck hand for the rich and beautiful as they travel the world by yacht. Soon enough, Elsa (who we learn is married to the most powerful lawyer in the city) has O'Hara hired on to her yacht and Mike gets quickly involved with her for all the wrong reasons. O'Hara starts thinking with body parts other than his brain and, eventually, he's sucked into a sly whodunit that really doesn't matter in the (jaw-droppingly-cool) end.

The Lady From Shanghai is really a cinematic experience more than a simple piece of film, even in its truncated form. Originally, the film was about 2 and a half hours long, but Cohn was so shocked at the odd camera angle and music choices and the pacing, that he had the thing cut up. Welles had no control of this and watched as audiences picked the film apart and the box office crumbled under it. Hayworth filed for divorce and Welles headed to Europe, where he would continue making films.

Columbia gives us The Lady From Shanghai in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It looks damn good in terms of the transfer. The source print has some issues (mainly lots of dirt, white density and hair) - this is a film that would have benefited from a nice cleaning before getting the DVD treatment, or at least a digital clean-up somewhere along the line. But this was what was given to us. The blacks are solid, grays are clean and there isn't an artifact to be found. The sound is a nice mellow Dolby Digital mono track that does its job.

Most of the history I mentioned above can be found on the disc's bonus materials (as well as in Peter Bogdanovich's book on Welles). The extras include a commentary track (featuring Bogdanovich reading from his book), as well as the original memo that Welles sent to Cohn, asking for editorial changes to the truncated version and his opinions on the history and the validity of the film. The commentary is nice, if a little derivative for true Welles fans. But if you're a little in the dark on the history of this film and the man who made it, this is a good stepping off point. We also get a selection of trailers, a gallery of vintage advertising material for the film and an interview with Bogdanovich that basically summarizes the commentary. All in all, it's not a bad DVD presentation of this classic of film noir - not in the least. It's definitely worth having in your collection.

So Welles got the short end of the stick on The Lady From Shanghai, didn't he? Do you think he learned his lesson? The answer to that question can be found in a review for another, later Wells film, Touch of Evil. So click on the link and I'll see you there...

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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