Orson Welles’ ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ is as captivating as it’s masterfully crafted

Orson Welles on the set of The Lady from Shanghai, courtesy of MUBI

Directed, produced and written by Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai is a complicated, puzzling and engaging little masterpiece from the legend’s workshop, and it remains a crying shame that the only version available to the world is the heavily edited one. Indeed, roughly sixty minutes of Welles’ original take were cut from the final version, and, as always, it’s an unreachable mystery what the film would look like if Welles had full control over the project. The electrifying energy between Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth is almost palpable, as they dominate the screen in stylish performances that could easily be called one of their greatest. The screenplay, penned by Welles, William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle, is overwhelmingly wordy, complex, at times more than slightly confusing, but the overall effect is the creation of a confounding mystery wrapped with a dark, inescapably engrossing atmosphere.

The Lady from Shanghai serves as a vehicle for Welles’ presentation of his skill and ferocious talent, as he confidently demonstrates the meaning of the epithet of a technical master that people often relate to his name. Cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.‘s visuals are breathtaking, the shots are composed studiously and diligently, the lighting is always perfect. The closing shootout, taking place in a hall of mirrors, stands out as one of the most memorable in the fruitful history of film noir. A whirlwind of conundrums and secrets, graced by attractive performances from great artists, engulfed in a tone and ambiance that only the best who-dun-it thrillers have to offer, The Lady from Shanghai is as captivating as it’s masterfully crafted.

Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Orson Welles’ screenplay for The Lady from Shanghai [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The Blu-ray of the film will be released on March 17, 2015 at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

ORSON WELLES in interview: “I believe you know the story of Lady from Shanghai. I was working on that spectacular theater idea Around the World in 80 Days, which was originally to be produced by Mike Todd. But, overnight, he went bankrupt and I found myself in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to take my costumes from the station because 50,000 dollars was due. Without that money we couldn’t open. At that time I was already separated from Rita; we were no longer even speaking. I did not intend to do a film with her. From Boston I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood, and I said to him, ‘I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me 50,000 dollars, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.’ Cohn asked, ‘What story?’ I was telephoning from the theater box office; beside it was a pocket books display and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady from Shanghai.

I said to him, ‘Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.’ An hour later we received the money. Later I read the book and it was horrible so I set myself, top speed, to write a story. I arrived in Hollywood to make the film with a very small budget and in six weeks of shooting. But I wanted more money for my theater. Cohn asked me why I didn’t use Rita. She said she would be very pleased. I gave her to understand that the character was not a sympathetic one, and this might hurt her image as a star in the public eye. Rita was set on making this film, and instead of costing 350,000 dollars, it became a two million dollar film. Rita was very cooperative. The one who was horrified on seeing the film was Cohn.” —Orson Welles

Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary where he recalls a conversation with Orson Welles about long takes and how the director is only limited by the amount of film in the camera. Welles states that Citizen Kane‘s cinematographer, Greg Toland, when asked about how silly it was to put film in the camera, said that one day they will figure it out and the camera will be an electric eye with no film or motor; just the lens. This sounds similar to what James Cameron did for Avatar.

Orson Welles offers insights into the triumph of Citizen Kane and later masterpieces like The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Othello, and Chimes at Midnight.

A vintage interview captures the artist reflecting on Citizen Kane and expounding on directing, acting and writing and his desire to bestow a valuable legacy upon his profession. The scene is a hotel room in Paris. The year 1960. The star, Orson Welles. This is a pearl of cinematic memorabilia.

Open Vimeo video, part 1

American actors aren’t good at period pieces. Television is a second-rate medium. Friendship is more important than art. These are just a few of the assertions made by Orson Welles in this 1960 episode of Close-Up, the second of a two-part interview with the renowned filmmaker and actor. While chatting with CBC’s Bernard Braden, Welles also discusses what he thinks was his best acting role ever (Harry Lime in The Third Man), and sings the praises of his cameraman on Citizen Kane.

Open Vimeo video, part 2

Below: Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles board the plane in Los Angeles that will take them to Acapulco, Mexico, for location shooting. The Lady from Shanghai is as fascinating for what happened during its making as for what appeared on screen. The then president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, saved a financially troubled Welles from bankruptcy by paying him handsomely to be screenwriter, producer and director for the film. Cohn also insisted that Welles’s estranged wife, Rita Hayworth, play the scheming femme fatale of the title. An added emotional resonance comes from the knowledge that the director and Hayworth—who reputedly said the only happiness she had known was with Welles—briefly lived together again during filming. —Tony Paley

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