The story behind “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947) is nearly as outlandish as the movie. A digital restoration of Orson Welles’s film plays at the Brattle from Friday through Sunday.
In 1946, Welles adapted “Around the World in 80 Days” as a stage musical. Cole Porter, no less, did the music and lyrics. The financing was so shaky the costumes had to go in hock. Desperate for money, Welles called Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn from Boston during the musical’s pre-Broadway tryout. Welles promised to make a movie for Columbia if Cohn would wire him $55,000. Cohn, not unreasonably, wanted to know what movie. Depending on which version of the story Welles was telling, he was in a hotel lobby and mentioned the title of the first book he saw on a nearby newsstand or he was at the theater and (covering the telephone mouthpiece) asked the woman in the box office to hold up the book she was reading. Either way, it was a thriller called “If I Die Before I Wake,” by someone named Sherwood King. Not only hadn’t Welles read it. He’d never heard of it.
The story gets better.
Cohn had one condition: Rita Hayworth must star. This made sense. Hayworth was Columbia’s biggest star. She was also married to Welles. Except that they were splitting up. That didn’t faze Welles. Sure, he said, and Hayworth would indeed be the very unladylike title character. However, as if to visually announce their split, Welles had Hayworth cut her hair for the filming and dye it blond. Who knew that Rita Hayworth could look like a tarty Joan Fontaine? Further complicating things, Welles would play the third party in an onscreen triangle involving Hayworth and her high-powered lawyer husband (Everett Sloane). Say this for the casting, there’s definitely chemistry between Hayworth and Welles, though not necessarily the kind studied in high school.
So “The Lady From Shanghai” has a great back story. It has an even greater finish. The climax, a shootout in a funhouse hall of mirrors, is one of the bravura sequences in all of film, a triumph of hey-look-at-me form over just-the-facts content. It’s high up on any Wellesian Top Ten, and what filmmaker’s Top Ten tops his?
The sequence takes up less than three minutes, though. The rest of the movie is like a film noir put-on — with only Welles in on the joke. A man arranges his own murder. A lawyer cross-examines himself on the witness stand. Rita Hayworth speaks some Chinese. Huh?
Welles encounters Hayworth riding in a carriage in Central Park and saves her from muggers. He’s a sailor without a berth, so she has Sloane hire him to help man their yacht. The yacht sails to San Francisco, by way of the Caribbean, Panama, and Acapulco. Sloane’s legal partner (Glenn Anders) shows up. This has two effects: The plot pivots in an even more implausible direction and Welles can no longer claim to give the most mannered performance in the film.
Welles’s character is Irish, and encasing the voice-over he delivers is what must be the second lamest male brogue in Hollywood history. (Humphrey Bogart’s horse trainer in “Dark Victory” is number one.) Granted, the louche standards of film noir set the bar very high, but both voice-over and dialogue are preposterously overripe. “Even without an appetite,” Welles laments, “I’d learned how much a fool like me can swallow.” The movie flirts with camp even more dangerously than Hayworth’s character flirts with Welles’s.
It’s almost as if Welles is daring the audience to scorn the movie. But it’s never less than interesting. There’s the enchanting role reversal of seeing Charles Foster Kane now working for Mr. Bernstein. From canted angles to sinuous camera movement to ravishing high-contrast lighting, Welles demonstrates with seeming effortlessness his visual mastery of the medium. Everything feels off balance — in ways good as well as bad. That’s one reason “Lady From Shanghai” retains a freshness, despite pushing 70. Sure and begorrah, a failure from a genius is still a work of genius.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.