Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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IAS Film Notes: The Lady From Shanghai

I just finished the notes I for tonight's International Arts Society screening of The Lady From Shanghai. It's not easy writing outside of one's usual environment, but Joel was kind enough to share his home office with me. If you don't know about IAS, you should check it out. There's a show every Friday until May. They're all free and open to the public, at 7:30pm in ILC 120 on the University of Arizona campus. Here are my film notes:
The Lady From Shanghai
Orson Welles, director – USA, 1947

Watching the DVD of The Lady From Shanghai, unsuspecting viewers might think they'd mistakenly selected a poorly executed "pan and scan," full-screen version of the film. Slivered faces loom at the edge of shots, cut off from the bodies to which they are attached, or crowd together in uncomfortable proximity. The mood is persistently claustrophobic. Some people want out, others in. But no one seems capable of ending up where they want to be. Framing takes precedence over other cinematic devices, even the oblique angles and high-contrast play of light and shadow for which director Orson Welles is famous.

Early in the film, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) takes our protagonist and retrospective narrator Michael O' Hara (Orson Welles) and two of his hiring hall buddies out for a beer. They stare at each other, two boxers warily deciding where and when to strike first, barely contained within a frame that draws attention to the men between them. Their topic, appropriately, is the edge. Bannister wants to know whether the man he's about to hire has one. O'Hara and his companions explain that an edge is as easy to lose as it is to gain. A knife, a pistol, a stack of bills – all circulate in an economy where the only thing permanent is the pace of change. The threat of loss hovers over every possession, making men weary with the need to defend what is only provisionally theirs. It's even worse for the stunning Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister (Rita Hayworth), who struggles with the realization that she can't really have an edge and be one too. Her husband Arthur, his law partner George Grisby (the astonishing Glenn Anders), Michael and other men are always hunting for her, trying to wrap their hands around her like combatants fumbling for a weapon in the dark. "Lover?" shouts Bannister, his question barbed with an equal measure of menace and fear. His calls become her calling, a woman who answers to power in the hope of turning it to her own ends.

Michael's voice-over ruefully recounts how he walked into the trap that sets the narrative in motion, implying that he at least had the capacity to head in the other direction. Elsa, by contrast, never has the chance, because she is the trap. Hayworth's understated acting makes this clear, picking up where her breakout performance in the previous year's Gilda left off. Welles only added the famous close-up in which she sings on Bannister's yacht – owned by Errol Flynn in real life -- after being ordered by Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn to make his contractually bound beauty more glamorous. But Welles's direction and Hayworth's performance combine to transform this highlight into a scene confirming Michael's lilting claim that, "It's a bright, guilty world." The yacht is a prison, the song is a prison, the frame is a prison and so, finally, is the manufactured name "Rita Hayworth" itself.

Significantly, although Welles clearly had mixed feelings about his soon-to-be-ex-wife Hayworth when he was making the film – he forced her to cut her trademark long hair and bleach it blonde for the role – he seems to have intuited the parallels between Elsa's plight and his own imprisonment within a film industry incapable of giving his beautiful genius free reign. His rough cut of the film was nearly twice as long as the finished product we see today, the climactic hall of mirrors scene considerably more involved and cohesive. But even in its truncated form, that doubling and redoubling of bright, guilty faces captures the difficulty of keeping track of one's true self, whether as a woman or an artist, in a world devoted to making dupes. The only way to know for sure is to shoot the image out of its frame.
It's hard to make a sustained argument in one page. This time I opted for the more wide-ranging, impressionistic approach. But I can live with a little disorder. Besides, I'm spending the night in San Francisco!
Tags: film, ias

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