19 April 2008

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Dir. Orson Welles, 1948, US) - Directed by Orson Welles?

The film literature ranging from journal articles, biographies and detailed studies of his body of work is vast and deeply profound in repositioning the auteur status of Orson Welles within the context of American cinema. Citizen Kane's domination of film cannon's around the world continues to point to a undeniable consensus amongst film critics of Welles' influential status as a film maker. The level of detail that exists now about the typically protracted and troubled production history of many of the Hollywood film's Welles made within the conservative and orthodox constraints of the studio system makes it endlessly fascinating for critics and audiences today to overlook the truly pioneering cinematic aspects of his films. The Lady from Shanghai is a film which has a production history which is more interesting and compelling than the film itself, and is representative of a textbook example of studio interference. Welles reportedly made the film as a favour for Harry Cohn who at the time had backed one of Welles theatre productions that had not been the commercial success which many had predicted.

Head of Columbia Studio, Harry Cohn's interference with the production and the final shape of the film has been well documented and once again provides further evidence of how deeply misunderstood Welles was a film maker. Though Welles only made a few films within the confines of the studio system, his artistic vision was consistently compromised and sabotaged to such a degree that it led to a rejection of Hollywood and resulted in a disillusionment which led to a self imposed exile in Europe. The original approved directorial running time of The Lady from Shanghai stretched to well over 2 hours and 30 minutes but once Harry Cohn was given a preview, he was dismayed by the end product, protesting about the film's supposedly incoherent narrative structure and radical depature from Hollywood film making practices. The film was eventually narrowed down to an 'acceptable' running time, losing over an hour of film, and violating Welles original vision, forcing him to distance himself from the final finished studio version.

Though very little remains of what Welles originally intended, the film still manages to succeed in conveying many of the innovative cinematic approaches and desires for experimentation that interested him as a film maker, such as the use of long takes, the brilliantly designed and well executed expensive crane shot in the opening encounter between Welles and Rita Hayworth, and the love of deep focus cinematography. On it's release, The Lady From Shanghai was dismissed by critics but now it is considered by some as a key film in terms of the development of the film noir movement. Rita Hayworth was still under contract to Harry Cohn's Columbia Studios at the time and he was eager to captialise on the commercial success she had enjoyed with 'Gilda', which had made Rita Hayworth an international superstar and icon of feminine sexuality. Welles had Hayworth cut her hair short and promised that this would be a role that would provide her with an opportunity to explore her acting abilities. Unfortunately, Hayworth's performance is somewhat limited in the film by her incredible on screen beauty - like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, the camera eroticises the contours of Hayworth's physical beauty especially her legendary cheekbones in most of her scenes with a real sexual energy that becomes a fitting tribute to the work of the Hungarian born cinematographer, Rudolph Mate.

The film is a tale of sexual jealousy and culminates in the famously hysterical and bizarre hall of mirror sequence in which death becomes a confirmation of betrayal. Like Godard, Kiarosatami and Tarkovsky, Welles is a film maker who's work needs to be revisited repeatedly for us to unlock and comprehend the immense talent he had as a film maker which has become lost in the mythical accounts of his status as a director that Hollywood did not understand nor appreciate until now.


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