Orson Welles needed money. That’s how this story begins. Back in 1946, Welles was putting the finishing touches on an ambitious stage production of Around the World in 80 Days — a musical! — and funds were running dry. So he called studio boss Harry Cohen from a drugstore and told him he had an incredible and exciting property he’d turn into a movie for Columbia starring Rita Hayworth, if Cohen would wire him $50,000 immediately. Cohen responded with a reasonable question: What’s the property? It’s, Welles said, grabbing a random book off the rack, Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake.
Welles didn’t have the rights to King’s book, nor had he read it. Neither had Cohen, but that didn’t matter. Columbia had just released Gilda, and Hayworth was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. And though Welles was persona non grata as a director, he was still a bankable leading man and married to Hayworth. Any movie starring the famous husband and wife was an easy sell — never mind that Hayworth and Welles were well on their way in the “estranged” category. Fifty thousand was chump change to Cohen. He wired the money, Around the World in 80 Days flopped, and Welles headed back to Hollywood to write, produce, direct and act his obligation. They retitled it: The Lady from Shanghai, a mangled masterpiece from a filmmaker who presided over a number of mangled masterpieces.
Welles shot enough film for a two-hour movie, but Columbia chopped that down to 87 minutes, and Cohen famously offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain just what in the hell the story was. Here’s your answer, Harry: Sex, love, money, loyalty, murder and more double-crosses than the characters can keep up with.
Sure, you have to fill in a lot of holes to get there, and it helps if you’ve seen the movie more than once. Not that it matters; story rarely drives viewers back. Style does, and few movies boast the high style, the dark shadows, the oblique angles and the emotions pitched to the extremes quite like Shanghai.
That’s all on display in Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release, available Jan. 31. The transfer is gorgeous. It’s so good you’ll want to watch it twice, and KL’s set includes three commentary tracks, an interview with Welles scholar and friend Peter Bogdanovich and “czar of noir” Eddie Muller breaking down three crucial elements. And none of them can make heads or tails of the movie either. Perfect.
Cohen’s cuts might have cost Welles’ film dearly at the box office, but it solidified its place in posterity. Deep is the scholasticism and curiosity for a movie this incoherent, disjointed and, at times, dumb. But then there are those nauseating close-ups of Grisby (Glenn Anders), the way Banister (Everett Slone) says “lover” that make you wonder what’s going on between him and Elsa (Hayworth) and that delirious, bonkers hall-of-mirrors ending that has inspired everyone from Bruce Lee to Jordan Peele.
Ultimately, The Lady from Shanghai is a cautionary tale. From Welles’ phone call forward, everyone involved thought they had a moneymaker. And everyone went home empty-handed. They, and probably anyone who left the theater in 1948, walked out like Welles’ character at the end of the movie: slightly dazed and totally confused. And yet, 76 years later, we’re still watching it, talking about it and trying to figure out just what in the hell is going on with The Lady from Shanghai.
ON SCREEN: The Lady from Shanghai, available on Blu-ray Jan. 31 from Kino Lorber.