Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Like the Sharks Mad with Their Own Blood Chewing Away at Themselves

The fifth film in the Orson Welles retrospective was projected from a DCP. The negative was immaculate. Only five in and it's already the end of Welles's Hollywood phase.

In The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles) Welles tones down his expressionist camera somewhat; because there are less abstract angles or compositions; but, the locations are truly influenced by German Expressionism through their nightmare quality. And the locations used in The Lady from Shanghai also indulge Welles's passion for exotic locale, especially the picnic detour up the coast of Mexico. The Mexicans in that sequence appear so authentic, they must be locals. And the latter half of the film boasts some historical treasures by getting to see the streets of San Francisco as they looked in the late Forties.

The Lady from Shanghai is nightmare noir; although the only other noir I can think of that fits this description is Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Some professors of screenwriting argue that movies must have an active protagonist. Or in other words, they maintain that a protagonist cannot passively progress through a narrative where other characters are responsible for actions against him or her; they say a character has to make choices. Do you act in your dreams? I don't. In my dreams stuff just happens. There are no rules in filmmaking, and The Lady from Shanghai is one of my favorite examples of the successful use of a passive protagonist: Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles).

A key ingredient in this noir is the overwhelming sense of paranoia that surrounds O'Hara. It constantly feels like everyone is lying, manipulating him, and out to get him like a bunch of sharks. And they are. The other key to The Lady from Shanghai is the titular femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, played by the sultry, created for the gaze of celluloid Rita Hayworth.

Elsa introduces herself as a princess after O'Hara rescues her, and tells him that she'd like to hire him as a sailor. But then she reveals that she's married. And her husband is the top criminal lawyer in California. And he's rich. And he's much older than her. And he's crippled, walking with two canes. Incidentally, her husband Arthur Bannister is played by Everett Sloane. Sloane was a part of Welles's Mercury Theatre, appeared in Citizen Kane, and Journey Into Fear, and rarely do I say this about actors, but damn I love Everett Sloane. Recently I was on a Twilight Zone bender and that led me to discover an amazing early teleplay that Rod Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theatre called Patterns from 1955 starring Sloane. Patterns is about a heartbreaking changing of the guard in a big business potboiler of a live program. Okay, I'm getting off topic, but when else will I have the chance to talk about Everett Sloane?

So, Arthur Bannister, his socialite buddy Grisby, and Mrs. Bannister exploit the hapless O'Hara. But what lures him into this madness? The femme fatale, Elsa. This might be as old of a movie I've seen where the sex appeal is still intact. Rita Hayworth is framed and photographed to look timeless. She's in her prime and radiates glamor and a disarming feminine allure. She's dynamite in her close-ups, her repose in wet clingy black bathing suit, and coos with feigned vulnerability that eats up the screen. The Lady from Shanghai is a nightmare also because Elsa deceives O'Hara into falsely believing she is attracted to him, yet she's duplicitous, and she's dangerous; but, even though he suspects all of this, he keeps following her further and further. This parable's got teeth.

Welles the thespian has another scene-grabbing monologue, and when he tells the surreal tale of the sharks of the coast of Brazil uncontrollably devouring each other, turning the sea red with their blood, he once again distills the essence of an entire film into a vivid cipher--a nightmare within a nightmare.

Welles's lasting impression as visual stylist is found during the funhouse climax, where the protagonist O'Hara stumbles down a winding dragon of a slide, and gets caught in a shootout in a maze of mirrors.


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