And so it was that, upon absolving the world of its sins with his debut feature film Citizen Kane and then tempting the world again with sin for his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles decided to sin a little himself for his third and fourth feature films, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. Admittedly, “decided” is not the whole story; Welles, if left to his own devices, likely would have continued evaporating cinema into its intangible elements and reconfiguring it as he saw fit, but the world had other plans. Hollywood had not taken to his second feature, and they were not about to let Welles go off the deep end of his own Frankensteinian ambition for a third time. He was, for the first time in his life, going to know the iron cage of restraint. He was going to play ball with the studios. To commit the sin of cinematic hackwork.
Of course, Welles being Welles, even Welles hacking up the place still succeeds in wrecking the place a little while he’s at it. The Lady from Shanghai is cinematic pleasure food, as thoroughly unambitious as anything Welles ever helmed, primarily because it is one of the few feature films to bear his name that does not feel like every inch of its existence is dedicated to self-immolation and careening itself dangerously on the precipice of cinematic good taste. For once in his life, Welles was playing it safe.
Now, there’s “safe” and there’s “Orson Welles safe”, so it should come to no surprise to anyone that The Lady from Shanghai is no milquetoast biopic. Anyone who could pull off the absolutely diabolical funhouse climax of The Lady from Shanghai – all bespoke defiance, avant-garde editing, chiseled and fractured sound mixing, and swirling, piercing, swearingly drunk camera angles cavorting with and threatening the characters and the Dadaist nightmare set design at every turn – could never only play itself. But by the standards of Orson Welles, Shanghai is shockingly abbreviated and commonplace. Thoroughly engaging, for Welles was Welles after all, but the regularity of the motion picture reflects either Welles’ palpable disinterest in the picture of his inability to find a home in the halls of safe narrative cinema for the masses.
This failure is likely because Welles was not a populist; his films thrive on malcontent ambition and a slathering disinterest in the outside world. So Welles playing to the outside world is, definitionally, a troubled region for the director. Take for example a late-film courtroom drama – where all middlebrow motion pictures go to die, and a location a mad scientist such as Welles has no business frolicking in. The sequence, inebriated on exposition and imprisoned by flat camera angles, stops the film dead in its tracks. Never in any of his films was “Orson Welles, director-for-hire” more apt. Sure, Welles pulls a fast one when he concludes the sequence with the aforementioned madhouse hall-of-mirrors smorgasbord, where he pummels his delusions of grandeur into the real McCoy. But the venomous finale doesn’t fully remove the watery sting of the antiseptic sequences that skulk into the frame before hand.
More visibly, The Lady from Shanghai exposes Welles’ failed poker face. Ever the dissident, Welles very likely felt Lady was not up to his standards, and the feeling of “get this over with” is potent throughout. Parts of Lady are rushed through with shocking abandon, but the film is never so openly defiant and grossly idiosyncratic and confusing as to transform into its own Escher-like exploration of the sensuous and the experimental, ie his later masterpiece Othello. While that film was defiantly, daringly anti-narrative as a matter of style, Lady‘s incompetence as narrative never encircles a purpose. It is merely bad storytelling, in other words, rather than a bold rejection of storytelling altogether (as most of Welles later masterpieces would be).
Still, Lady is by no means a wash, even if the film’s most pungent aromas are more accidents than anything else. Welles’ comically inept Irish accent, for one, prefaces his future descents into the ghoulish and the artificial (take the obviously plastered-on nose in Mr. Arkadin). It seems intentionally forced, in other words, a vocal and perhaps necessary breath of gleeful contrivance that nearly destroys the film even as it is openly addressing the ways in which immanent self-destruction is par for the course for all cinema. It is as if Welles is daring us to interpret and debate with the fake qualities of his character, another in Welles’ long series of enthusiastic liars and egomaniacs. And by extension, he dares us to question his film altogether.
Lady is afoot with wrinkles like that, from the winsomely acerbic sea venture where Welles was let free with his small crew far away from the evil overlords of Hollywood (one gets the sense that Welles reveled in playing the drunken pirate captain in real life), to an … enthusiastic … collage of undersea life projected behind an otherwise loopy conversation as if only to undo the seams of the words being spoken even more-so. With all these intrusions of tomfoolery lying about, the temptation is to define The Lady from Shanghai as Welles letting his hair out into the perennial well of the off-the-cuff B-picture.
This is not an inapt argument, but the tale is incomplete. Welles was singular among the corpus of American directors in that he let his hair out with every single production he directed; even when he was making a batten-down-the-hatches wall-of-sound style A-picture, he directed with gusto, spunk, and rough-and-tumble underdog rejection of veracity and propriety. You want the cinema of Welles to tremble with treason and traitorous villainy. You want the film itself to feel like a rebel stand against all that is holy in the cinematic world.
Although Lady isn’t exactly playing it safe, it hardly feels like the heinous act of rabble rousing it could have been. Welles was the great equalizer, marrying A-cinema ornaments with B-picture delirium until his films could only truly be defined as neither. He didn’t aspire to produce B-pictures consciously; he arrived at them from a diagonal nether realm of his own invention. Lady feels like Welles conforming to society’s conception of B-pictures, approaching the style from the outside and playing by its rules as they exist in society rather than threshing them through his warped mind. Playing down to B-pictures, in other words, rather than stripping them for valuable parts and transforming them into his own monstrous beast. Lady remains a potent B-picture, but it achieves nothing that Welles would not accomplish with more fire and vicious ferocity eleven years later in his return to Hollywood with the devilish dynamite cinema of Touch of Evil.