Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Lady From Shanghai Is Utterly Ludicrous, Which Is A Compliment

There are some things mankind is destined to never truly understand. Among such impossible to fully grasp matters is the Irish accent Orson Welles chose to adorn for the lead role of his 1948 directorial effort The Lady From Shanghai. One of a number of forays into film noir that Welles would pursue both as a performer and as a director, Welles gives his performance as this film's central protagonist a pervasive thick Irish accent that, thanks to opening voice-over narration (this is a classic film noir after all) begins the film on a note of ludicrousness. There's plenty more where that came from, of course, and the wicked peculiar streak of The Lady from Shanghai is what makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Though armed with a voice that makes him sound like the gruff cousin of the Lucky Charms leprechaun, Orson Welles is actually playing Michael O'Malley in The Lady from Shanghai, a man looking for a job and a way to evade his past that includes all sorts of sordid deeds, including murder. A chance encounter with a wealthy woman named Elsa (Rita Hayworth) leads him to a job opportunity in the form of working for a boat owned and run by Elsa's husband, famed lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael refuses the gig, but Elsa and Arthur insist he take it. Before long, Michael is aboard the ship and carrying on a secret romance with Elsa, a situation that's bound to lead to tragedy and murder most foul.

Eventually, Michael gets coerced into helping a business associate of Arthur Bannister frame his own murder but things soon go awry for all involved and Michael is left accused of murder. It's a plot that, like The Big Sleep, is a whole lot of tomfoolery without much rhyme or reason for what's going on. Atmosphere and mood seem to be the name of the game here but it does feel like the screenplay (which is solely credited to Orson Welles but was apparently polished up by other writers) is taking pride in creating as many different ways Michael can sink down into even more trouble. Again, not much of it makes much in the way of rational sense but atmospheric-heavy pieces and even a bunch of the best film noirs rarely do.

What's far more important in both of those types of movies is how much the movie grabs you and The Lady from Shanghai certainly gets the job done in that department. Though not an all-time great entry in the 1940's film noir pantheon, it is a lot of fun to watch, partially because the ludicrous plot just keeps finding new ways to get down certain twisty narrative paths come hell or high water. For instance, Michael doesn't escape police custody by a complicated means of craftiness, rather, he amusingly just beats his way through a whole field of officers like he's John Wick avenging a deceased puppy.

Random bits of absurdity provide some of the best moments in The Lady from Shanghai, a movie headlined by a pair of fine but troubled performances. The real-life conflicts between Welles and Hayworth (who were an estranged couple at the time of this movie being filmed) do mar the duo's work together here in uncomfortable ways and leave Hayworth, whom Welles was apparently antagonistic towards, turning in solid work in a role that sometimes feels like it's taking swipes at the performer herself. As for Welles, he still commands a believable aura of painful remorse when the time calls for it even if he is armed with that ridiculous accent that renders his recurring pieces of dense narration as comedic more than anything else.

Welles finds more success behind the camera, particularly in crafting some beautifully blocked shots that take advantage of the unique lighting opportunities (read: heavy uses of shadows and minimal light creeping into otherwise dark spaces) afforded by the film noir genre. The best-looking section of the movie, no question about it, comes in the climax when our trio of lead characters have a showdown in a funhouse mirror maze. It's a trippy sequence that does a great job using the warped omnipresent mirrors as well as some well-executed editing to create some truly chilling imagery. Though The Lady from Shanghai begins with on an unintentionally comedic note stemming from that Irish accent Welles puts on, the cinematography and direction of this finale ensure the movie ends on a phenomenal high note.

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