Orson Welles once claimed he only saw thrillers as a means to an end, that if it wasn’t for the unfortunate necessity of getting films funded he wouldn’t have made any. As if to demonstrate this, he would often tell a story about the genesis of his famous noir, The Lady From Shanghai, now re-released on dual format DVD and Blu-Ray by Indicator Pictures. After RKO had recut his last suspense picture, The Stranger, into the blandest movie of his directorial career, he was unwilling to return to the genre, but his stage production of Around the World in 80 Days was going wildly over budget and he needed an emergency payday. He picked up the phone to the legendary producer Harry Cohn and pitched a can’t-miss thriller starring his then-wife Rita Hayworth. All he needed, he said, was the rights to the novel… and here he paused, to read the name of whatever pulp paperback his secretary had spent the afternoon engrossed in.
It’s a great story, and like most of Welles’s great stories it probably isn’t true. He tells it twice in Chuck Workman’s 2015 biographical documentary Magician, and each time the details are subtly different. Sometimes he couldn’t even correctly remember the name of the novel – If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, as it happens. In Clinton Heylin’s excellent, scrupulously researched biography Despite the System: Orson Welles vs the Hollywood Studios, to which this review is greatly indebted, Heylin suggests the origin lies more with Hayworth. After the success of Gilda made her Columbia Pictures’s biggest star, Cohn was eager to find another crime thriller for her. Hayworth used her newfound clout to argue that her husband should be allowed to direct, write and co-star.
Welles was happy to be working on a big-budget studio movie but wary about Cohn. The mogul’s famous temper was no issue for a dominating personality like Welles, but Cohn’s suspicion of anything arty or uncommercial was. Welles’s personal investment in the material was based on the similarities between King’s novel and Prosper Merimee’s much-adapted story Carmen, which he had tried without success to film. He decided to use King’s novel as a Trojan horse to make Carmen by stealth, keeping this high-culture source a secret from the enthusiastic vulgarian Cohn. Not that it stopped Cohn from hitting the roof repeatedly over countless aspects of Welles’s drafts and first cut, from its length (155 minutes in Welles’s edit, compared to the finished film’s 87) to its unsympathetic heroine, its implication that a major character was gay (Welles relented, and made him disabled instead), and – most famously – his decision to replace Hayworth’s famous flowing red hair with a blonde crop.
When Cohn hired Welles to star alongside Hayworth, he might have been expecting something along the lines of Bogart and Bacall; a real-life couple who would charm the audience so much they’d overlook some knotty noir plotting. Hayworth was more excited about playing a Merimee-derived villainess, though, and to complicate matters their marriage began falling apart during production. The Lady From Shanghai stands alongside Godard’s Made in USA, von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman and Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea in that small, poignant tradition of films made partly to eke a few more months out of an ailing director-star relationship. Like Godard’s shots of Anna Karina, there is a plaintive simplicity to Welles’s close-ups of Hayworth that lay bare how pained he is to be leaving her. Everything else is covered in chiaroscuro shadows and Expressionist angles – Welles cited The Cabinet of Dr Caligari as a key influence – but Hayworth is evenly lit and simply framed. She is simply Rita Hayworth, and – the subtext goes – she will continue to be even without Welles.
That said, when Welles is taking control of his images there’s no-one more dynamic. One clifftop scene with rather too-obvious painted backdrops is redeemed by the incredible image it closes on: the camera towering above Welles as he looks up, his head framed by the crashing waves and jagged rocks hundreds of feet below. There is a continual motif of obscured or broken reflections – Cohn removed a proto-Bond scene where blood obscures the camera, but a car crash is filmed so that the smashing windscreen looks like the lens itself has suddenly shattered. This is the build-up to one of the most famous scenes in Welles’s career, the wild, disorienting shoot-out in the hall of mirrors.
Despite Cohn’s edit valuing entertainment over coherent plotting, the dull courtroom scene preceding the hall of mirrors shoot-out was left roughly intact, but a whole coda where Welles chased Hayworth through the rest of the funhouse was excised. The stills that exist of this sequence hint at something truly, groundbreakingly horrific; its images of mutilated faces prompted one person to write a whole book arguing that Welles was the Black Dahlia murderer. (Allow me to rebut this suggestion in the detail it deserves: no.) As it stands, the hall of mirrors is a wonderful fusion of Welles’s careers as illusionist and director – just try to work out how it was shot! – and a fitting grand finale to a compromised but remarkable film. It doesn’t deconstruct film noir as well as Touch of Evil – a film so good it basically killed the genre – but Welles’s ambition to create a tale of grand madness out of a pulp novel is more than satisfied. It’s also a fine if barbed farewell to his relationship with Hayworth, and something which could have been one of the all-time great director-star couples had it been given chance to flourish.
Wouldn’t it be great to say Indicator have found the missing fun house footage? They haven’t, of course – it’s almost certainly been destroyed – but they’ve got everything else, including appreciations by Joe Dante, Simon Callow and a full-length commentary by Welles’s close friend Peter Bogdanovich. The booklet also has writing from one of the film’s producers who took an uncredited turn on the script – William Castle! If it seems strange to have cinema’s canonical greatest director working with the producer of Mr. Sardonicus and The Tingler, the hall of mirrors scene and dynamic, comic-book style compositions prove that there’s plenty of pulp showmanship in Welles. Maybe not as much as Harry Cohn might like, but more than enough to entertain.