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Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane
Length: 92 min
Label: Mill Creek Entertainment
Release Date: March 17, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Type: Black and White
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
- No Special Features
Orson Welles famously once said of himself, “I started at the top and worked down.” Just six years before The Lady of Shanghai was released, Welles directed, what would eventually be considered, one of the greatest films ever made, Citizen Kane. Where could one go from there? The Lady of Shanghai is an example of the flawed direction much of Welles post-Kane work took once he had to learn to live without having final cut of his projects. While the film is ostensibly a classic noir, there are elements of black humor, awkward cinematography choices, and a plot that is essentially all over the place. In the context of Welles’ full filmography, The Lady of Shanghai foreshadows the similar, albeit in a more awkward, rougher, and absurd manner, Touch of Evil, by over ten years.
For any fans of the former or anyone interested in seeing the evolution of a director and his artistic choices (or ‘fall from grace’ depending on how you look at it), should checkout Mill Creek Entertainment’s Blu Ray release of The Lady of Shanghai. While it was sourced from the same 4k restoration Sony and TCM Vault, Mill Creek offers a cheaper price and higher bit rate encode, which means a truer visual fidelity, better quality image, and lossless audio.
The film follows a seaman who finds himself at the center of complex murder plot, after being hired to work on a rich family’s yacht. Eventually he is implicated in a murder, wondering if he was just a patsy all along. The Lady of Shanghai is ultimately a product of a tumultuous production history and post-production hell, all of which coincided with the deterioration of Welles’ marriage to Rita Hayworth (they divorced shortly after the film was released). As the story goes, in 1946 Welles found himself in debt while directing an ironic musical stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days. When one of the producers pulled out, Welles needed to come up with $55,000 to finance the costumes for the lavish production. Welles promised Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn to write, produce, and direct a film for no further fee in order to release the costumes they were holding. According to Welles, in the heat of the moment, he pitched a book that a random girl in the box office booth just happened to be reading at the time.After the film finished shooting, Welles produced a rough cut that ran about 155 minutes. Cohn disliked the film’s flimsy, convoluted plot, Welles’ stylistic choice to use very few close-ups, and Welles’ use of irony and dark comedy, particularly in the courtroom scene. Objecting to the slow and deliberate long takes to establish mood, Cohn preferred the stylized cinematic glamour look Columbia Pictures had over the films more ‘gritty’ appearance and tone. As a result, Cohn ordered massive reshoots and extensive editing to cut about an hour from Welles’ original cut. To this day, much of this footage has been lost, perhaps intentionally.
Given the beleaguered nature of the film, it is understandable why looking back the film was doomed from the start. Welles also detested nearly all of the musical score changes, feeling that the sense of Brechtian irony had been lost by creative decisions that were more on the nose, essentially ‘spoon-feeding’ the audience. In the end, Harry Cohn admitted to Welles that he would never hire one man to produce, direct, and act ever again. The reason being: that man could never be fired.
Sony’s 4k restoration featured on this Mill Creek release is superlative. The clarity, sharpness, and image depth are a feast for the eyes, and the film grain is fine and well resolved. Of course, all these fluctuate, owing to the many optical effects that Welles used, and the restoration itself never tries to smooth these over, which is as it should be. Shadow depth is striking, and without crush, unless dictated by the cinematography itself. It’s wonderful to see The Lady From Shanghai looking so beautiful, yet unbeautified.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio track sounds very much of its vintage, but has been nicely cleaned up. Heinz Roemheld’s music has plenty of body and amplitude, even if the dynamic range is naturally limited. Dialogue is clear and easy to follow.
Unfortunately, this Blu Ray offers no supplemental extras.
One gets the sense watching Orson Welles’ films is that his real impediment as a filmmaker was being unable to make the kinds of artistic choices within the constraints of 1940s-50s Hollywood. Citizen Kane was not his fluke, a cinematic ‘one hit wonder.’ It was an example of how all of Welles’s grandiose ideas could come together succinctly, leading to a culturally and generation defining masterpiece. Time has proven that Orson Welles was more than just the young director who ‘lucked out’ and just happened to make the greatest movie of all time. But it is this false narrative that greatly influenced the production of The Lady from Shanghai. Perhaps if Welles directed Citizen Kane later in life, it would have been easier for him to cut his teeth in the film industry, to grow seasoned and to learn how to get what you want making commercial movies.
In the end, Welles’ post-Kane work attempted to push the boundaries of conventional American cinema, and to shake up how mainstream movies look, sound, and feel. He did this during periods when it was not financially or professionally expedient to do so. Anyone who has done that in Hollywood, in any era, merits some degree of respect as it often leads to legitimate career suicide. Thankfully, he never learned his place.