The Lady from Shanghai

Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse… until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.

That little speech that Orson Welles’ character just casually produces on a nighttime beach in Acapulco in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) neatly encapsulates the frantic greed and self-destructive instincts at the heart of the story. In a way, I suppose you could say it catches the flavor of film noir itself, that bleak and dark form of cinema which emerged in the years when the world was clawing its way out of the financial abyss it had slid into and was poised to dive into another even more nightmarish period. It must have seemed that a humanity drunk on blood lust was bent on tearing itself to pieces. Yet for all its nihilism, film noir was also an ideal vehicle for experimentation, and there were few better qualified than Welles, that natural-born envelope pusher, to try to extend the boundaries a bit further.

The tale told begins in a deceptively simple manner with Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) chancing upon the titular lady from Shanghai, Elsa (Rita Hayworth), as he saunters through Central Park of an evening. There’s a foreshadowing of sorts of the Grand Guignol drama and chicanery to come when Elsa speaks of her White Russian background and spells as a professional gambler in Shanghai and Macao, while O’Hara spins equally beguiling yarns about his opinion of jails around the globe and his having killed a man in Spain. A bit of convenient chivalry and heroics grabs Elsa’s attention and leads to her lawyer husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), offering O’Hara a job. That job is sailing their yacht around the coast, via the Panama Canal, to the west and San Francisco. It’s as this odd party makes its way south, towards the tropics, that the emotional temperature rises correspondingly and approaches feverish proportions off Mexico. As the atmosphere grows increasingly rarefied and O’Hara finds himself falling under the spell of the enigmatic Elsa, he is approached by Bannister’s partner Grisby (Glenn Anders) with an unusual proposition – he wants O’Hara to kill him. A scenario that has been strange and off-center up to this point now spirals down into a positively surreal vortex of cross and double-cross, where motives and desires become hopelessly entangled.

Welles took a twisty, convoluted but not especially remarkable noir story, If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, and ran with its outrageous central premise, that of a man seeking out another who will be willing to take responsibility for killing him. While the essence of the plot is retained by Welles, he opens it out and brings his own characteristic style to bear. Although the scope and geography of the source novel is expanded the vicious intimacy of the amoral group at the heart of it all remains. The shooting style favored by the director and his casting choices mean that the distinctly odd characters of the book are transformed into a veritable gallery of camp grotesques, His real masterstroke was the climax, fitting in a dramatic escape from custody, a chase through Chinatown and that famous final confrontation in the abandoned amusement park, culminating in the hall of mirrors shootout. None of that appeared in King’s novel, which is effectively suspenseful but not really cinematic in any way. Even if what we have today is only an approximation of Welles’ vision, due to studio imposed cuts, it still provides a lesson in how to successfully adapt a piece of literature for the screen – keep important details of the plot intact, and the attendant tension, but have the courage and self belief to add the kind of visually audacious touches needed to create a cinema experience.

I started this post by mulling over some characteristics of film noir, and I’d like to run with that a little further here. As a style of moviemaking or storytelling it can be viewed as a collision of opposite sensibilities: the soft-hearted vs the hard-headed, romanticism vs pragmatism, the idealistic vs the materialistic. And The Lady from Shanghai carries that through in its casting. On the one hand, we have Welles himself, all affected blarney and bemused infatuation. While on the other hand, there’s the venal self-absorption of everyone else. A bleached blonde Rita Hayworth is at the center of it all in a role which sees her beauty exploited to the full as she seeks to beguile Welles on screen and, by all accounts, off it too. Everett Sloane moves jerkily through the tale, his twisted leg defining his physical and psychological weaknesses but, curiously, losing some of the bitterness and regret his character in the book suffered from. Instead we see a more sardonic side to him, and his playing off Glenn Anders’ comically creepy law partner is among the highlights of the picture. Add in a rat-like and oily Ted de Corsia and we have a full house of larger than life performances to enjoy.

The new dual format Blu-ray/DVD from Indicator in the UK is another of their typically stellar presentations. While I don’t have any of the previous US Hi-Def releases of the movie to compare, I’d be surprised if this version has been bettered. The transfer of the film is based on the 2012 Sony 4K restoration and looks terrific. This is a dark film and the deep blacks draw you into the depths of its shadows. It’s been said that high-definition offers a more immersive experience and that’s a term I feel is particularly appropriate in this case. As usual, the supplements are both extensive and attractive. There’s a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich as well as a twenty-minute video “discussion” – carried over from the old DVD – by him. There’s another 20+ minute filmed feature with Simon Callow along with a short extract of a 1970 interview Rita Hayworth did for French TV. Additionally, we get a brief trailer commentary from Joe Dante and an image gallery. The booklet is up to the label’s usual high standards – 40 informative pages with an essay by Samm Deighan, and extract from associate producer William Castle’s memoirs, detailing his experiences in the making of the film, a reproduction of the 9 page memo Welles sent to Harry Cohn regarding the changes made to his work. And all of that is rounded out by some comments by the restoration team on the challenges they faced.

The Lady from Shanghai is a movie whose reputation has grown over the years after its initial poor box-office performance. What we have today isn’t quite what Welles wanted but it’s by no means a poor film – there are flaws to be sure but the flair, inventiveness and sheer passion for filmmaking of its director is apparent in every frame. If you like film noir or Welles, or just absorbing cinema, then it’s a must see. And the new package, transfer and extras, put together for this release is as good as anyone could wish for.

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The Money Trap

It isn’t the money, it never is. It’s people, the things they want…and the thing’s they’ll do to get it.

While the consensus is that film noir, weakened and wounded by a shifting media and social landscape, shuffled off into the shadows at the tail end of the 1950s, it occasionally lurched back out of the alley and onto the slick, neon-lit main streets. Wherever tough luck and the fickleness of fate hang out the dark cinema is never far off, and sightings were reported at various times throughout the 60s. The Money Trap (1965) is one of those later versions of the classic form and, to my mind, quite an effective one too.

It starts, as it ends, with the aftermath of a killing. The camera is high, observing with cool detachment, the familiar urban setting of streetlights reflecting off wet asphalt. A squad car pulls up to the curb and two detectives alight, crossing swiftly to the ramshackle tenement where the night’s latest offering awaits. Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) and Pete Delanos (Ricardo Montalban) are confronted with the dead body of a young Latino woman, lynched in a bordello by her enraged husband. Although this turns out to be no more than an incidental plot strand, it serves to introduce the seedy and morally skewed world – an “honor killing” such as this is spoken of as being at least partially understandable – where we’ll be spending the next hour and a half. We then move on to see how Baron is living an extremely luxurious existence, far beyond that which a cop’s salary could be expected to pay for. And of course it’s no such a surprise when we learn how the finances are actually down to a rich young wife, Lisa (Elke Sommer), but that supply of cash may not be unlimited. So the need for money is our hook, the line is provided by the main investigation – a burglar shot under slightly dubious circumstances by a well-off doctor (Joseph Cotten) – while the sinker will come in the form of a mini-heist that’s doomed from inception. As it all unfolds Baron, who has been treading a variety of fine lines, runs across Rosalie (Rita Hayworth), an old flame and a reminder of simpler times, and something begins to worry his conscience.

The film has two big themes at work on two levels. In a narrower and more personal sense, there is a yearning for some kind of return to innocence, a desire on Baron’s part to regain some of the purity and promise he once possessed. This plays out in the way he’s drawn repeatedly to seek out Rosalie, yet she’s been bruised and broken by the years and we (and I think the same is true of Baron too) know that he’s really just chasing rainbows on that score. The wider picture is all about front and facade, the flash appearances that ensure nothing is quite as it seems and thus nothing can be depended on. Everybody in the movie is carrying secrets and consequently tell lies to conceal them – policemen are corrupt, wives are potentially faithless, friends may be enemies in waiting and the more respectable the surface, the rottener the core. There are angles everywhere and none of them clean. Should we read something into the fact the one man who speaks of integrity and honesty is a police captain (an uncredited Ted de Corsia) who is only seen  in the morgue?

Burt Kennedy’s great strength was as a writer, especially in those films where he worked with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher – even if he had never done anything else outside of those films his cinematic legacy would have been considerable. Nevertheless, Kennedy also worked as a director, albeit with less satisfying results. In that capacity his work tended to be what we might term entertaining without being all that distinguished. A lot of his films have a certain flatness to the visuals, something of the made-for-TV look, although this doesn’t apply to all of them. The Money Trap does suffer from this a little but cameraman Paul Vogel had a sound enough pedigree in classic era noir (High Wall, Dial 1119, Black Hand, A Lady Without Passport, Lady in the Lake etc.) to ensure the right kind of mood was struck when required. Still, I feel there’s some indecisiveness in the overall style of the movie, it’s not a fatal flaw or anything but it is noticeable.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth made five films together, with Gilda probably being the most famous of those. Naturally, both stars had aged in the two decades which had passed but Ford was in better shape, his features reflecting a man with a bit of living behind him and about the appropriate level of weariness for a man who sees the less savory side of life on a daily basis. Hayworth was playing a woman worn down by years of bad luck and booze, and she looked like she knew the feeling only too well. I understand she had something of a drink problem in reality and there’s a degree of authenticity in her performance.

Joseph Cotten could move easily between heroic and villainous parts; he always had a bit of stiffness about him, a distance or remoteness, which lent itself well to darker or more ambiguous roles as the years went by. As such, he was a fine fit for the doctor with connections and he looked like he was enjoying himself as his character slowly reveals himself. Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a couple of quality films noir before this – Border Incident and Mystery Street – and he brought abundant experience to the table as Ford’s partner on the lookout for any get-rich-quick opportunities. And rounding out the principal cast is  Elke Sommer, always easy on the eye and playing a role that has a touch more depth than initially looks like being the case. In fact, it’s Sommer who makes a major contribution to the resolution, which at least hints at something more positive than the build-up might suggest.

The Money Trap is available as a Warner Archive MOD disc, and there are also copies on sale in other territories. The image is generally quite pleasing, black and white CinemaScope usually is and particularly when the print used has no glaring faults. Anyway, I found this an enjoyable piece of post-noir cinema, well acted and, for the most part, nicely shot.

Gilda

Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

I guess one of the defining characteristics of film noir is its subversive nature. It tends to take traditional scenarios and situations and casts its dark and cynical shadows over them, carrying the audience along on a journey into a murky and unfamiliar world. This subversion can apply to the legal system, social matters, or affairs of the heart. Gilda (1946) concentrates on the latter category, spinning its tale of three people locked into a romantic triangle, unable to decide if they love or hate each other and apparently unaware of the distinction between these powerful and conflicting emotions.

The story begins in Argentina at some unspecified point towards the end of WWII. But there’s a timeless, otherworldly quality to it all – the end of the war and the ensuing celebrations are mentioned in a throwaway fashion that’s surely meant to emphasize the detachment of the lead characters from the real world and the more mundane concerns of most people. These people seem to exist and operate within their own self-contained universe, a glamorous yet nightmarish demi-monde, where the bigger picture of world-changing events are relevant only as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The opening shot of the movie introduces Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a down on his luck grifter rolling dice on the waterfront and looking for easy marks. His strategy is a high risk one, not just because he’s a gambler but because his loaded dice are sure to attract the attention of disgruntled suckers sooner or later. When the inevitable happens, and Johnny finds himself the victim of a shakedown on a dark and forbidding wharf, his hide is saved by the intervention of a suave gentleman with a handy sword stick. This is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a casino owner with an interest in shadier and even more profitable ventures. Johnny is nothing if not an opportunist and soon talks himself into employment, and a position of trust, with Ballin. For a time this mutually beneficial arrangement works and everything is sailing along smoothly on calm waters, until a woman appears and brews up a storm. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a sexual powerhouse, a woman whose passionate nature and provocative insolence seems to radiate from within. Her sudden and dramatic appearance as Ballin’s wife, after a whirlwind courtship, throws Johnny for a loop and irreversibly alters the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Gilda’s arrival on the scene has an immediate and profound effect on Johnny – their introduction is a charged affair, and the confusion that Johnny’s barely able to disguise is shared by the audience. The rippling undercurrent of hostility gives rise to all sorts of questions about these people. I’m not giving away much here when I point out that it’s soon revealed that Gilda and Johnny were once lovers, before he walked out on her. And there we have our triangle: a cagey, duplicitous affair where the three protagonists circle each other warily and seem bent on mutual destruction. While it all develops nicely, I’ve always thought that the ending is weak – a little too abrupt and not all that convincing.

In my opinion, the reason Gilda is classified as a film noir is down to the theme more than the look. Cameraman Rudolph Maté does create some characteristically noir images – the waterfront opening, some of the nighttime casino scenes, and the way Ballin seems to blend and merge with the shadows – but much of the movie features bright, flat lighting. The edgy, darker tone stems largely from the setting and plot twists. A casino has a built-in sense of fatalism to it anyway, a place where fortune quite literally depends on the turn of a card or a throw of the dice. When this is combined with the South American setting, and the allusions to ex-Nazis involved in political and economic intrigue, it conjures up that sense of exotic danger that was very much in fashion in the mid to late 40s. Of course all this really only amounts to Casablanca style escapism; the key element that tips it over into the world of noir is the sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the tale. The film is essentially a love story, but there’s a vicious, unpleasant side to the romance. Everything revolves around the title character, as she punishes both Johnny and Ballin, but in so doing she incurs arguably greater punishment at their hands in return.

The unquestionable star of the show is Rita Hayworth, the role becoming the one with which she would remain most closely identified for the rest of her life. Hayworth herself acknowledged this and it seems she had mixed feelings about it – her frank admission that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her is very telling. Whatever the personal legacy may have been, Hayworth certainly breathed life into what, in other hands, could have been a cardboard cutout character. She was excellent at getting across the contrast between the vivacious bravado that characterized Gilda’s public facade and the uncertainty and self-loathing she felt in more private moments. Her big scene, the one that is endlessly referenced in books and retrospectives, where she tries to provoke a reaction from Johnny with a knowing parody of a public striptease is justly famous. However, it also tends to overshadow the good work she did all through the movie.

While Rita Hayworth is the one most people will remember from the movie, Gilda worked wonders for the career of another of its stars. Glenn Ford, like a number of other actors, had seen service during the war, and Gilda was the film that gave him the boost he needed and raised his profile. Wartime experiences affected a lot of performers, it gave them a different air, a toughness and a touch of weariness too. Ford went on to work in some pretty good noir pictures, Lang’s The Big Heat being the best of them, and he did seem to belong in that world. As he did in his numerous western roles, Ford brought a kind of dissatisfaction with himself to his noir parts. Johnny Farrell has a veneer of cockiness and self-assurance to him, but Ford could always invest his characters with a nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality too. These may be little things yet they add up and make characters more believable and realistic. Although both Johnny and Gilda are flawed individuals, they’re not villainous. But a movie like this needs a bogeyman, and George Macready was a fine choice for the role of Ballin. Right from the beginning there’s a sinister air about him, and Macready’s innate charm and culture accentuates that. The repressed manner and wonderfully distinctive voice add to his calm menace – you honestly get the feeling that crossing this man would be an extremely foolish move. Of the supporting cast, I find Steven Geray the most memorable. This washroom attendant whose contempt for just about everyone, apart from Gilda, sees him making one flip comment after another seems to be given a lot of slack. I especially like the way we never find out exactly what leverage he has – the one time he’s about to reveal it he’s interrupted, and we’re left wondering.

I actually drafted this piece back in July, after I’d seen it one balmy Saturday night in an outdoor cinema in Athens – always a great way to enjoy a classic movie. However, I realized my holidays were fast approaching and so I decided to hold off publishing it. I though I might want to go back and tweak it some, but I’ve decided to leave it just as I’d written it a few days after watching the film. I’ve seen Gilda many times over the years and always enjoyed its dark romance. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those movies that reveals too many new things on repeated viewings yet it’s not the kind that grows stale either. It’s earned its classic status, and it’s well worth visiting or revisiting.