Thursday, November 27, 2014

THE THIRD MAN

Carol Reed, 1949
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard

Holly Martens, an American writer of pulp novels, travels to post-war Vienna searching for his friend Harry Lime, who has sent him a job offer. It seems that Lime has been killed — hit by a car — and Holly arrives just in time for the funeral. Vienna is occupied by British and Russian forces and he meets two British officers, Sergeant Paine (a fan of Holly’s western books) and Major Calloway. Calloway gently suggests that Lime was a criminal and that Holly should leave town. But he’s determined to find out what happened to Harry and clear his name, especially when he gets some hints that his old friend just might still be alive.

After The Fallen Idol, this was director Carol Reed’s second partnership with writer Graham Greene and remains their most successful work and one of the most enduring triumphs of British cinema. The black-and-white, German expressionist-influenced cinematography from Robert Krasker is incredibly famous, as are Reed’s dizzying Dutch angle shots that pepper the film. The Third Man, despite the fact that it’s a portrait of the decay and corruption in postwar Europe, hasn’t aged a day and remains relevant. Harry Lime is one of cinema’s best villains — or antiheroes, depending on your perspective — and Reed and Greene use him to examine the hazy morality that surrounds any war. Lime’s worst crimes, including stealing medicine reserved for children to sell on the black market, are compared to what presumably good people did during the war — bombing thousands of innocent civilians, all just anonymous dots on Harry’s map.

Moral hypocrisy is at the heart of this bleak film packed with moments of black humor. The Third Man seems to lambast all nationalities — British, German, Russian — though especially Americans through the ridiculous, foolish Holly, ignorant of what life during (and after) wartime is really like. Compared to Lime, Holly and most of the other characters are pale and desperate, living an approximation of life. Lime is simply bursting with life and sensuality. Though other actors were considered to play him, Orson Welles — famous for his love of excess — is perfectly cast. He overwhelms the frame, seeming larger than life, and despite his dubious morality and criminal activities, it’s immediately apparent why both Holly and Anna, Harry’s girlfriend, are drawn to him and why they remain loyal.

Harry Lime was such a compelling figure that Welles went on to take part in a radio drama, The Adventures of Harry Lime (The Lives of Harry Lime in the U.S.), with narration by Welles, who wrote several of the episodes himself. It was also followed by a television spin-off starting in 1959. I haven’t seen the show yet, but the radio show comes highly recommended and is available in its entirety online. Rumors that Welles directed some of the film seem to be false — the most he did was hold up production by arriving late and suggest some excellent, impromptu dialogue, such as the quote about how war and strife have brought out the best in different societies, while all peacetime Switzerland did was invent the cuckoo clock.

Welles is tremendous here, but his regular Mercury Theater collaborator, Joseph Cotten (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), is also excellent as Holly Martins. He’s supported by solid performances from Alida Valli (Eyes Without a Face, Suspiria) as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, British staple Trevor Howard (Green for Danger) as Major Calloway, and many other actors including Bernard Lee, Erich Ponto, and Ernst Deutsch. Vienna is also a character of its own here, with many breathtaking scenes shot on location; this was one of the first British films shot primarily on location and outside of the studio. The scene at the Vienna Ferris Wheel, where Harry and Holly finally meet up, is unforgettable, as is the classic chase scene through the city’s immense network of sewers.

The Third Man comes with the highest possible recommendation. Everything is wonderful, down to the assured directing and cinematography, solid script, and excellent performances. Last but certainly not least is the unforgettable zither score from Viennese composer Anton Karas, which is strange and unsettling, but absolutely perfect. If you can find the out of print Criterion release, that is well worth buying, otherwise you can find it on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE FALLEN IDOL

Carol Reed, 1948
Starring: Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Denis O'Dea

Philipe, the young son of a diplomat, is often left alone by his busy father and has developed a close relationship with the butler, Baines. Baines tells him fabricated stories about his dangerous life in Africa and tries to spare the boy from Mrs. Baines, his cruel, jealous wife also employed by the family. Baines tries to leave her — he is having an affair with a younger woman — and she pretends to go out of town to spy on him. She finds him with Julie, his girlfriend, and the quarrel violently. She falls to her death accidentally, which Philipe misinterprets as a murder. In his attempts to help Baines, he further incriminates the man.

Like director Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol has been shunted to the side in favor of The Third Man, which is really a crime in both cases. Shown primarily from the perspective of a child, the film has a haunting quality found in the best films about children on the verge of a developing adult consciousness (Spirit of the Beehive comes to mind in this category), but who fundamentally perceive the world differently. There are plenty of fairy tale like moments — Mrs. Baines is an obvious stand-in for the wicked stepmother — and the palatial house becomes a character all its own. The film was set inside a foreign embassy (most likely French) in London, which would the family to have sufficient wealth to warrant a large house and the employment of a household of servants.

The house is both immense and ominous, as well as a child’s playground. Philipe has the space to play lengthy games of hide-and-seek and to escape from Mrs. Baines. But the mansion is also a place of isolation and foreboding, essentially a prison. Being born into wealth and luxury means a life of loneliness and isolation for the child, as his parents are largely absent. His father appears once at the start of the film and his mother shows up only in the last seconds of the conclusion. Philippe desperately searches for companionship and surrogate parents, which he finds with abundance in Baines. The idea of wanting freedom, of wanting to escape from domestic confines that plague Baines and his young charge, is symbolized by the house, where they are both trapped without love or intimacy.

The Fallen Idol has a deeply noir sense of style with German expressionist-like lighting, Dutch angles, and the unforgettable staircase — that centerpiece of film noir. Georges Périnal’s cinematography and Vincent Korda’s set designs turn the house into a place equally fitting for childhood fantasy, illicit affairs, jealous rages, and violent death. The film was based on a story, “The Basement Room,” written by Graham Greene. This marks the first collaboration between novelist Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. They would go on to adapt Greene’s The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, though this is apparently the work that Greene was the most happy with. There were several changes, mainly that Baines apparently pushed his wife to her death, while in the film she falls and dies accidentally after she continues to try to spy on him.

There are a number of excellent performances, namely Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits, Doctor Zhivago) as Baines. The lovely Michèle Morgan (Port of Shadows) puts in a decent performance as his young girlfriend, Julie, while Sonia Dresdel (The Trials of Oscar Wilde) is memorable as the foul-tempered but not wholly evil Mrs. Baines. Bobby Henrey is transcendent as Philipe, possibly because Green allows him to act like a child. A series of lies, fantasies, and incorrectly witnessed or interpreted events rack his childlike mind and he is desperate to do what’s right, to help exonerate Baines regardless of whether or not the butler really killed his wife. The moment the boy tries to tell the truth — explaining away a piece of evidence that clears Baines of all charges — would have actually damned Baines yet again. But by this time, no one believes him. Philipe soon gives in to the childlike craving for attention and becomes incredibly annoying, which actually serves the story well and ends with him being plunked in a chair, out of the way of adult conversation. 

The Fallen Idol comes recommended and has aged remarkably well. It might sound like a tiresome story about a wealthy brat and an uptight British butler, but it has far more too offer, including a sense of mystery and wonder. Fortunately, Criterion released it and gave it a much-deserved restoration, even throwing in some special features.

ODD MAN OUT

Carol Reed, 1947
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan

Johnny, the leader of a resistance group in Ireland, has escaped from prison and has been hiding out at the home of Kathleen and her grandmother. Kathleen is in love with him and tolerates the group meeting there. They plan a heist on a local mill to raise money for their group, which Johnny reluctantly agrees to take part in. Everything goes wrong and Johnny is shot in the arm and falls out of the getaway car. He is left to hide on his own in the city, while slowly bleeding to death. The police, Johnny’s gang, and Kathleen each begin a desperate for search for him as the night grows colder and it begins to snow.

Based on F.L. Green's novel Odd Man Out (1945), this is one of Carol Reed’s finest films, though it is somewhat underrated because it has been more difficult to see than this famous film, The Third Man. Odd Man Out would actually be a fitting double-feature with The Third Man. Though they are very different films, both are set in war-torn cities where the police search for a criminal who is fleeing because of a single crime gone wrong. Both criminals — Harry Lime of The Third Man and Johnny from Odd Man Out — are immoral. While Harry’s crime is arguably worse, Johnny is a gang leader having doubts after a prison sentence. Both are charismatic anti-heroes, two of Reed’s finest characters.

Odd Man Out was also something of a dry run for the famous, German expressionist-influenced cinematography of The Third Man. Odd Man Out was shot by Robert Krasker and has some truly beautiful scenes of the city at night. Roger Furse and Ralph Binton's production design is excellent and was clearly influenced by French poetic realist films like Pépé le Moko (1937) and Port of Shadows (1938). There is also a sense of Greek tragedy and Catholic martyrdom to Johnny’s character, whose irrevocable doomed is clear from the start of the film. This is just as much film noir as religious tragedy, where Johnny becomes a sort of symbolic sacrifice. He wanders through the city, bleeding out, and has encounters with a variety of strange people — giving the narrative a vignette-like feel — from housewives and artists, to bums and barmen. He eventually moves so close to death that he begins hallucinating and recites parts of Corinthians just before his death: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

James Mason gives an incredible performance, certainly one of his best, but Johnny isn’t actually given the bulk of screen time. The equally sound supporting cast was from Dublin’s well-known Abbey Theatre, including actors like Cyril Cusack (Harold and Maude), Robert Beatty (2001: A Space Odyssey), and Dan O’Herlihy (Halloween III: Season of the Witch). Robert Newton (Oliver Twist) made a memorable cameo as a drunken artist trying to paint death, with the dashing first Doctor Who, William Hartnell, appears as a frustrated bartender not sure whether he should throw Johnny out on the street or give him solace. Kathleen Ryan (Give Us This Day) is here in her first feature film as Johnny’s love. And last, but certainly not least, the Abbey Theatre’s founder, W.G. Fay, appears as the kind Father Tom.

Odd Man Out comes highly recommended and is a noir-crime masterpiece. Reed mostly succeeds in being apolitical and not taking with or being specifically against the IRA, which Johnny’s organization is clearly meant to represent. There are many wonderful surreal moments, which increase as Johnny moves closer to death on his urban, yet mythic journey. The sense of doom and loss is heightened by a wonderful score from William Alwyn, which I would like to own separately. Odd Man Out is currently only available as a region B Blu-ray, though Criterion are allegedly giving it their fantastic treatment sometime in 2015.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

BRIGHTON ROCK (1947)

John Boulting, 1947
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh

"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” -Graham Green

At Brighton’s race track, in seaside resort in England, a teenager named Pinkie takes over a small gang after the leader is killed. Partly, this is due to a story written by a local reporter, Fred, so Pinke and some of his men take care of Fred, killing him at the local carnival. He gets one of his men, Spicer, to make sure there is no evidence that the gang was responsible — the police think it was actually a heart attack — but Spicer blunders this and leaves behind a clue that is found by an innocent young waitress, Rose. Pinkie intimidates Rose, but she also falls in love with him. He decides to marry her so that she’ll never be able to testify against him, but he is foiled by Ida, a performer in a touring troupe. Briefly friends with Fred before his death, Ida is determined to get to the bottom of things and follows Pinkie’s trail even though the police ignore her.

With a script by acclaimed British novelist Graham Greene — based on his own novel — and Terence Rattigan (The Prince and the Showgirl, The Browning Version), this is certainly one of the best adaptations of Greene’s works. Adaptations of his novels include such classic thrillers as The Third Man, The Ministry of Fear, The End of the Affair, The Fallen Idol, and more, but Brighton Rock is perhaps the most faithful of all these, changing relatively little of Greene’s plot (except the ending, thanks to studio interference). It’s also one of the finest instances of British film noir, blending elements of the gangster film popularized in the U.S. in the ‘30s with a German expressionist influence and an undeniably British sensibility.

Along with such filmmaking teams as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as the Archers, and Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the Boulting Brothers are a staple of British cinema. Twins John and Roy traded off the roles of director and producer, though John served as director here. His work is understated, but excellent, and it’s a shame they didn’t make any further noir-styled efforts. Thanks to his talents and some wonderful cinematography from the skilled Harry Waxman (The Wicker Man, The Day the Earth Caught Fire), the Brighton location becomes a character of its own. Known as a popular real-life vacation spot, the carnival and resort itself — a seaside paradise — is here depicted as a hell or at best a purgatory for many of its citizens.

Brighton’s depiction of ease and luxury hides a thin veneer of crime, filth, despair, and violence packed into the carnival, race track, cheap boardinghouses, dark alleyways, and bars. Greene’s novel was apparently based on real gangs that plagued the area between the two world wars and there is the same sense of poverty, amorality, and desperation found in Weimar-era narratives. In Brighton Rock, this revolves around Pinkie, one of Britain’s best villains. The late, great Richard Attenborough was fresh off reprising his stage role as Pinkie and is perfectly cast here, a combination of cherubic and diabolic traits. The Catholic Pinkie believes seriously in supernatural forces. He’s anxious and neurotic, a convincing face of evil despite the fact that he’s just a teenager.

The crux of the plot revolves around his neuroses coming down hard on the gang. Though Pinkie is able to kill Fred — a chilling scene set in the carnival fun house — he is gripped by paranoia that someone will discover his crime, even though the police have immediately closed the investigation as death due to a heart attack. It is perhaps a secret, hidden guilt that causes Pinkie to obsessively worry about evidence, which he has his followers track down and stamp out for no logical reason. His marriage to Rose seems to be a way to keep her close without admitting that he has feelings for her — it’s possibly these feelings of love within himself that Pinkie hates, rather than Rose herself. It is also likely that Rose — young and Catholic, like himself — is a living reminder of his guilt, his act of murder. He could easily murder her too, a far simpler task than marrying her to keep her quiet, but he chooses to keep her close.

Aside from Attenborough’s incredible performance, there are some great side roles. Hermione Baddeley is wonderful as the stubborn Ida, a frumpy, somewhat annoying performer who is inexplicably desperate to discover Fred’s murderer. This is presumably because of his one act of kindness towards her — an act fueled sheerly by desperation — which adds to the pathos of her character and the grim tone of the film. Future first Doctor Who William Hartnell is quite dashing as Dallow, while Carol Marsh (Horror of Dracula) is lovely as Rose.

Brighton Rock is available on Blu-ray and comes with the highest recommendation. Though the ending was forced on Boulting by the studio, I think it sums up the overall air of the film — incredibly cynical — and shows that hope is a lie, optimism and faith are always misplaced, and the Catholic way of looking at the world is often strange and cruel.

Monday, November 24, 2014

GREEN FOR DANGER

Sidney Gilliat, 1946
Starring: Alastair Sim, Leo Genn, Sally Gray, Trevor Howard

Citizens in the British countryside are rocked by regular bombings from the Nazi Blitz. Meanwhile, a patient is found dead at a local hospital — he is in surgery after being injured by a bomb, but dies due to improper anesthesia. An investigation is opened, because the anesthesiologist, Dr. Barnes, had a patient die the same way in the past. as Inspector Cockrill heads to the scene, a nurse, Sister Bates, is murdered soon after she announces at a village dance that she knows the death was not an accident, but murder. Several doctors and nurses had motive and opportunity and Cockrill rushes to find the killer as more lives are threatened.

Based on a much-read novel by Christianna Brand, director Sidney Gilliat streamlined the novel’s plot into an elegant work of black comedy, murder most foul, and almost unbearable level of sexual tension. Gilliat made a name with his partner Frank Launder as writers on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, an earlier example of their deft handling of comedy and suspense. They also worked on Night Train to Munich (1940), The Rake’s Progress (1945), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), and more, often changing up roles as director, writer, and producer. Green for Danger is an example of one of Gilliat’s solo works, without Launder, and possibly as a result it is quite dark in tone.

Though this is often labeled as a film noir or murder mystery, it is really a hybrid of the two, with plenty of elements of horror. Films like this and Dead of Night represent the closest Britain came to cinematic horror during the war years, when the genre was frowned upon if not outright banned The masked and anonymously gowned medical practitioners both serve as a plot function, literally masking the identity of the killer, but they also add to the film’s sense of the weird. There are certainly elements of the Gothic and of German expressionism here, with dark and atmospheric shots of the shadowy hospital at night or the threatening woods, which have a fairy tale-like quality. I can’t help but wonder if this influenced Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960).

As with later giallo films and Eyes Without a Face, there is a sense of anxious, repressed, and almost predatory sexuality at work. Though there are two key male suspects, the women of the film represent both victims and perpetrators and female hysteria runs rampant throughout the film. Women suffer from current and past traumas, which inevitably return to haunt the present. Everything is tenuous and vulnerable due to the war, the bombing and its aftermath, and the constant proximity to death suggested by the hospital. There’s also a somewhat mean-spirited tone, a sense that love and affection is fleeting, temporary, and many of the female characters become near-psychotic in their attempts to grasp it and hold on to it.

The film succeeds thanks to the strong script and a number of excellent performances. While the impressive female cast includes Sally Gray (The Hidden Room), Rosamund John (Spitfire), Judy Campbell (Sredni Vashtar, mother of Jane Birkin), and Meg Jennings (The Innocents), the men are able to hold their own. The stalwart of British cinema from this period, Trevor Howard, is memorable as the icy, possibly neurotic Dr. Barnes, and Ronald Adam (The Haunting), is undeniably disturbing as his foil, the sexually carnivorous Dr White. Alastair Sim, however, steals the film as Inspector Cockrill (Stage Fright) and injects some much needed lightness and humor. Without his humor voice over and absurd bumbling, this would be a very similar film to Henr-Georges Clouzot’s Le corbeau (1943), a black little film about murder and blackmail in a village in wartime France.

Green for Danger comes highly recommended. It’s an assured blend of horror, whodunit, and noir that plays with the conventions of a traditional British mystery and adds bold elements like a wartime background and hospital setting. Thanks to the black humor and German expressionist-like visuals, this puts a toe over the line into horror and is a highly underrated piece of filmmaking. Pick it up through the Criterion Collection.

TOUCH OF EVIL

Orson Welles, 1958
Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia

A car blows up at the U.S.-Mexico border, just as Mexican detective Mike Vargas and his new American wife, Susie, arrive to celebrate their honeymoon. Vargas is reluctantly invited to take part in the investigation, as he is well-known for his work prosecuting a Mexican drug gang, the Grandi family. Vargas has to work with Captain Quinlan, a corpulent detective with an immense reputation and a penchant for playing by his own rules. When Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence, he is determined to uncover the full extent of the conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Grandi gang kidnaps and torments his wife, Susie.

Touch of Evil has the distinction of being Welles’ final American film and is generally regarded as the last official film noir of the classic period (1941 to 1958). This marked Welles’ return to Hollywood after a decade in Europe. He hoped that it would be a successful return, but Hollywood disappointed him yet again. Though he turned in a visionary, experimental work within budget and on schedule, the film was re-cut and re-edited, with a new soundtrack added. Heartbroken, Welles returned to Europe for the rest of his career. Touch of Evil was also dishonored by being released as a B-movie, rather than an A-list film, and it was largely ignored or disliked by American critics and audiences.

However, it was successful in Europe and has fortunately gained a reputation as an influential cult movie and, finally, as a bonafide classic. It’s also been restored several times to approximate the version Welles wanted on screen (thanks to Welles scholars and the notes the director and star left behind before his death). Based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil (from 1956), this study of sex, drugs, bad cops, and racism is another flawed masterpiece from Welles, wrote co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film. As always, he also helped craft the sets, soundscape, and cinematography. His opening sequence, a lengthy long shot through the border town of Los Robles, has become one of the most famous in history.

Welles’ Quinlan is the heart and soul of the film. He’s a flawed, contradictory figure. He isn’t wholly corrupt, but he has a “touch” of evil in his nature and possibly a hint of the supernatural, as his hunches — which he attributes to his injured leg — often seem to be inexplicably correct. He isn’t so much framing innocent victims as guilty suspects, providing evidence for a clean arrest and conviction when there is none. Quinlan is in keeping with many of Welles’ other characters: proud, tragic men whose fatal flaw is their incredible hubris. He’s also a possibly autobiographical examination of the dangers of living a life of excess. He’s huge and bloated, and has exchanged alcohol addiction for the incessant munching of candy bars. But he’s also brilliant and captivating.

Perhaps the film’s weakest element is that the other characters fade and pale in Welles’ shadow, or simply seem cartoonish and ridiculous. For instance, Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career, but it’s also absurd to have Heston playing a Mexican character. It looks like there’s shoe polish on his face instead of tanning lotion and he doesn’t even pretend of have an accent. This could be Welles’ attempts to show little difference between American and Mexican life and people — which is pointed out several times throughout the film — but it’s still difficult to swallow Heston as a Mexican. Janet Leigh puts in a good turn as his lovely blonde wife, but her predicament becomes increasingly ridiculous. The film goes off the rails with its depiction of Susan’s ordeal — she is threatened by the Grandi film and pursued by its gang of leather-wearing, weirdly sexual teenage and twenty-something degenerates. Later, she’s drugged and presumably gang raped, but the whole thing feels cartoonish rather than terrifying. And the worst thing that happens to her is not at the hands of any Mexicans, but is Quinlan’s doing; he frames her for murder.

Both Leigh and Heston are also outdone by the numerous cameos Welles has planted throughout the film. In shades of Psycho (released only two years later), Gunsmoke’s Dennis Weaver appears as a repressed, disturbed hotel manager who leers at Janet Leigh and aids in her kidnapping. Welles’ regular player Joseph Cotten (The Third Man) appears as a detective, while Marlene Dietrich has a great cameo as a gypsy-like brothel owner who tells Quinlan that he has no future, that it’s all used up. Mercedes McCambridge (Johnny Guitar) surprisingly shows up in drag as a Mexican gang member, and Zsa Zsa Gabor has a memorable, if brief scene as the owner of a strip club.

Touch of Evil comes highly recommended. It’s a deeply subversive film that unequivocally roots for its villain and makes the hero look ridiculous. Though earlier Welles works introduced themes of racism, Touch of Evil seems to impart a message stunning for the time that Mexicans are no different than Americans and the carnivalesque border town presents the bleed through of the criminal and immoral from all walks of life. Pick up the DVD or better yet the special edition Blu-ray — this film is a true classic of American cinema from its Gothic-Western undertones to its revolutionary cinematography, and a last American look at one of the country’s greatest auteurs. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

Orson Welles, 1948
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

Michael O’Hara, a sailor from Ireland, meets a beautiful blonde woman in Central Park. After he rescues her from potential robbers, she introduces herself as Elsa Bannister and offers to hire him as a sailor on her husband’s yacht when they travel from California to the Panama Canal. Her husband, the disabled Arthur Bannister, is the city’s best defense attorney and is very wealthy. Despite the fact that she’s married and has a colorful, possibly dark past, Michael falls for Elsa and signs on for the trip. During the journey, Bannister’s partner, George Grisby, attempts to hire Michael to help him fake his own death. Michael will appear to murder him, but will be found innocent by default due to the lack of a corpse. Grisby has Michael sign a confession and everything goes wrong from there – Grisby shoots a private detective on Elsa’s trail and, before Michael can put things right, Grisby is found dead along with Michael’s confession…

One of the greatest films noir and one of Orson Welles’ finest efforts, The Lady from Shanghai has a troubled, fascinating history. Welles made the film in exchange for the money to keep a theatrical production of Around the World in 80 Days afloat. Based on a novel by Sherwood King, If I Die Before I Wake, schlock-master William Castle owned the rights to the novel and intended to direct the adaptation himself – though Welles talked him into a role as only associate producer. The studio was troubled by Welles’ use of Brechtian techniques – certainly not geared toward everyday movie-goers – black comedy, unconventional editing, and strange camera-work reliant on long shots, rather than the close ups favored by all Hollywood studios.

Throughout his career, Welles struggled constantly with studio interference. The Lady from Shanghai is yet another example of this. He was devastated by the cuts to his film, particularly the ending, and the addition (in certain scenes) of a musical score. It was allegedly cut by an hour (the missing footage is considered destroyed or permanently lost) and close ups were added of Rita Hayworth. Speaking of Hayworth – Welles’ wife at the time – the studio was scandalized that Welles cut off her trademark long, red hair in exchange for a nearly white, bleached-blonde crop. He also transformed her into the ultimate femme fatale. Michael and Elsa discuss that she was born in the wickedest city in the world and it’s made clear later on that she stays with her husband because he is essentially blackmailing her to keep silent about some crime she has committed.

Elsa is the axis around which the film rotates. Welles and Hayworth were separated during production and were divorced not long after The Lady from Shanghai’s release. It’s easy to see this, in some ways, as a reflection of his feelings toward Hayworth and their marriage. Elsa – like Hayworth herself – is little more than a fantasy creature. She is statue-like, at time even apparitional, with her lovely profile and icy stare, determined inaction, and flat, unemotional register throughout the film. Elsa is presented with a past, but not a future and the exoticism of this past is part of her allure. Her connections with sex, danger, and Shanghai seem frozen in time, like Elsa herself.

Hayworth later said that men didn’t want to marry Rita, they wanted Gilda (her character from the film of the same name) or the fantasy image of her, the sexy pinup and the confident glamor girl. Tragically, she seemed to always marry men who wanted her for her image or, later, her money. Elsa is similar in some ways. Men desire her – and fall hopelessly in love – because of her glamorous image. But unlike the real-life Rita’s insecurities, Elsa is a wanton murderer, ready to seduce and frame Michael so that she can murder her husband and find emotional, physical, and financial freedom.

There are certain parallels with Double Indemnity. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, Elsa is a beautiful woman with questionable morals planning to murder her husband. And Welles’ Michael, like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, is the dope in love with her. Phyllis’ husband spends much of his screen time hobbling on crutches thanks to a broken leg, while Arthur Bannister is permanently disabled. It is likely that Welles was influenced by this highly influential noir, but he takes all of the characters several steps further – they are all more sinister, more depraved, and more surreal.

Aside from his controversial use of Hayworth, Welles cast a number of strong supporting actors from his Mercury Theater group in The Lady from Shanghai, many of whom are conduits for Welles’s sly use of black humor. Sloane (Citizen Kane) co-stars alongside Welles and Hayworth as the pathetic but devious Arthur Bannister, and William Alland (Citizen Kane), Erskine Sanford (Citizen Kane), and noir regular Ted de Corsia (The Big Combo, The Naked City) all have memorable side roles. It’s also worth mentioning that Welles cast a number of non-white actors in a time when Hollywood had some questionable racial politics. Elsa, though apparently Russian by birth, was at least for a time a Chinese citizen and is fluent in the language. When she’s in trouble, she heads to San Francisco’s Chinatown, rather than to white American friends. (There are also black maids and Mexican workers, so don’t think that the racial landscape is progressive, merely less sullied than other films of the era.)

Welles pushed to make The Lady from Shanghai one of the first major Hollywood productions shot mostly on location, including areas of Mexico and San Francisco. The Mexican shoot was apparently dangerous and the cast and crew were beset with interference from various critters, heat stroke, illnesses, and even one cameraman died of a heart attack. Welles, unusual in almost all things, also added two unnerving, dream-like sequences that are considered some of the some exemplary shots in all noir. The first is set in an aquarium, where Michael and Elsa have a love scene and kiss in the presence of school children. The fish behind them were shot to appear larger (and closer) than they really were, giving the scene a shadowy, menacing feel.

The final scene – thrilling, imaginative, and dreamlike – was Welles’ famous carnival set. He pushed the boundaries of how camerawork and editing techniques were typically used, going so far as to put a cameraman down the absurdly long slide. The funhouse was apparently inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – complete with strange angles, moving doors, the giant slide, and a room of mirrors. Welles apparently painted the entire set himself overnight. I wish the missing footage could be restored, but either way, the confrontation between Elsa, her husband, Michael, and a room of mirrors is both chilling and breathtaking.

The Lady from Shanghai remains relevant and exciting, and comes with the highest possible recommendation. It’s available on Blu-ray, though I’m hoping a superior release comes along soon. I haven’t bothered to mention Orson Welles’ performance here – or his role as writer, director, or producer – because it should be assumed that he is fantastic here, as always, and Michael might just be his most heartfelt, emotional role. Considered a failure in its time, The Lady from Shanghai is now considered a masterpiece. This revolutionary gem belongs at the top of any “to watch” list.