Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Minor" Welles

Whether in front of or behind the camera, Orson Welles was commanding screen presence. He had a voice that carried words softly but authoritatively, and his on-screen portraits have given cinema some of its finest and most memorable images. Anyone who has seen Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) will not ever likely forget his face when he first appears in the film enveloped in shadow. Even his mouth, as the focus of a single short close-up in Citizen Kane (1941), will be long-remembered as that which uttered the impassioned whisper, "Rosebud!" These images and countless others have cemented themselves in the minds of cinephiles and film historians.

As a director, Welles is perhaps even more respected. He famously made several critical darlings in film history and is also remembered as one of the first filmmakers to dare to take on Shakespeare. Aside from his individual film by film achievements, he is rightly considered on of cinema's best craftspersons and artists. Welles brought unparalleled aesthetic quality to "high art" material like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but also potboiler pulp such as in the brilliant Touch of Evil (1958). Many of these films I have seen long ago. I often revisit them in my memory as well as occasionally on-screen. However, I should admit that my place in the world of Welles (regrettably) hasn't extended beyond these films. Before the cinephile police come and arrest me, I should note that I have dutifully excavated films like Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in multiple viewings. And on these occasions, I have discovered and learned more with each subsequent viewing regularly uncover in each of them, relishing Welles' ability to stretch the reach of cinema's aesthetic potential. Welles has a fascination with storytelling, but his occupation in the film canon has more to with how subtly and eruditely he engages narrative and aesthetics with each other.

Having thoroughly dissected just a few of the director's films and altogether not seeing a majority of others, my critical vantage point into Welles and his work is characterized by both expertise and estrangement. I become more aware of this unique position when I step outside the familiar trappings of the "core" Welles films I've seen over and over again. Seeing other films in Welles' filmography is as disorienting as it is familiar, and on the few times I've ventured to do it has resulted in new cinematic discoveries, not just in the films themselves but in gaining new angles on the increasingly problematic yet necessary concept of auteurism and aesthetic reflexivity.

Recently, I watched one of Welles' supposedly "minor" works, The Lady From Shanghai (1948). I was not surprised to find out that it was yet another intriguing exercise in Welles' career-long inquiry into the potential of the moving image. But how the film does this is especially significant, particularly from my Kane / Evil-tilted understanding of Welles. Throughout the film's short running time, I drew a number of comparisons to Touch of Evil in its experimentation with undertones of film noir, even though The Lady From Shanghai is tonally very different. Nevertheless, there are traces of the gritty noir realm he constructed for the former film. As it is, The Lady From Shanghai will likely not be remembered with the same loving embrace as Touch of Evil because it lacks thematic consistency. It is both playful and brooding, and it never locates a balanced stroke of either. A 90-minute tale of ambiguity, murder, and class divides, The Lady From Shanghai converges a variety of narrative and stylistic approaches common to Welles. But these elements are streamlined so smoothly that it's treasures may glide right past you on first viewing.

Welles plays Mike O'Hara, an admittedly naive Irishmen who falls for the Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth, with a rare updo), wife of a rich man, Arthur Bannister. O'Hara is invited on a yachting cruise with the Brittons, where finds himself caught in a web of lies and deceit surrounding a murder plot that goes horribly wrong. Standard murder drama stuff, to be sure. But Welles spins it so deliriously and seemingly effortlessly and still manages to squeeze out so many genuine moments and keen commentaries that one can't single out individual moments to describe the compositional beauty and the perfect fusion of movement and storytelling.

No doubt The Lady From Shanghai initially comes across is a distinctly enjoyable film, but it appears to only achieve greatness in moments, most notably in the hall of mirrors climax, where Welles delights in the deconstruction and reconstruction of images. He multiplies them, overlays them, and runs them through our minds in twisted fashion. The wonder of the scene, however, is that he finds a poetry in the hyper-motion; it's the kind of surrealistic fusion that makes sense only in the motion of the figures on screen.

However, with scenes like the funhouse exuding bold explosions of style, the film's small treasures can be easily overlooked. In the seamless setup and execution of narrative, Welles' visual allusions are aplenty and aided greatly by his uncanny eye for compositional detail and fluidity, i.e. foregrounding and lighting techniques that are both straightforward and densely rich. A fine example of this narrative-stylistic synthesis is the scene in which O'Hara (Welles) and Mr. Grisby (Glenn Anders) walk along the cliffs of the ocean line discussing how they will fake Grisby's murder. While keeping his actors foregrounded in the shots, Welles never allows the ocean to leave the background. He creates such a distance between the actors and the crashing ocean water behind and below them. These shots are spatially uneasiness, as we can never quite make sense of the surroundings as O'Hara and Grisby make their way down to a particular point on one cliff's edge with the conservation becoming more strange is it evolves. The tension is dually heightened, but not for reasons unknown. It's an intangible discomfort, one that doesn't become evident until the last shot of the sequence, when Brisby abruptly "falls out" of the shot, inducing a feeling of vertigo as the scene culminates in a cryptic, sudden abruption. We know Grisby hasn't fallen, but the simple stagings and framings create a strange spatial orientiation.

These are only a few examples of the film's breezy mastery of style. The Lady From Shanghai is fully of these little moments, from a humorous courtroom scene to its yachting travelogue through many luxurious locales. Part of what makes it so special is that it downplays its dramatic aspirations and demonstrates the versatility of visual storytelling. Welles' seems to be indulging in a bit of fun with the film, but in doing so he hones in on the great pleasure of storytelling and simply watching images. For every bit of deliberate formal detail there are so many naturalistic tones breaking through the formalism, giving them a sense of weightless playfulness that only highlights the film's formal strengths, however sporadic or straight-ahead they are. All of these components come together so easily to enliven deceptively simple story about (conveniently enough) the physical and emotional pains of simple deception.

The Lady From Shanghai will likely always be pigeon-holed as nothing more than a pleasurable diversion, and that fact all the more elucidates the intangible simplicity that makes this film such an important one in Welles' oeuvre. It also highlights the strengths and weaknesses of auteurist criticism. Were it made by any other director its many treasures would be reaped by more viewers. I fear that if I had seen the film after watching more of his movies, I would not appreciate its virtues in quite the same way. Where I go with Welles from here I do not know, and that's something I'm happy to admit.


Ed Howard said...

An interesting essay. You see a lot more in Lady From Shanghai than I do, although my experience of the film may be irretrievably marred by the fact that Welles' vision for the film was hacked to bits by studio interference. It's hard not to imagine what might've been if he'd had his own way. The film's narrative setup is fairly slapdash, although often endearingly so. Welles comes across as disinterested in the prosaic plot, and he skips over seemingly crucial details with a light touch. There are lots of rough montages that fade quickly from one image to the next, signaling the long ellipses with which Welles skips through the narrative. Hell, the entire development of the romance between the leads is essentially left to an ellipsis; they fall in love sometime between scenes and the audience is left to believe it or not.

Within this hazy narrative framework, there are moments that simply shine through with great intensity and ingenuity, like the eerie shot where Welles threatening describes a shark feeding frenzy, or the final funhouse sequence that's so justifiably famous. Of course, even this finale was massively cut by the studio, and would've been much longer in Welles' cut. This scene is a masterpiece as is, nearly avant-garde in its treatment of screen space, and I only wish I could see it at its full length.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Ed. The flaws you point out are often glaring. I'm actually glad you pointed this out. It would have been relevant to point out the studio interference, but my only knowledge of this came from watching the Bogdonavich interview on the DVD after I watched the film.

Part of the intent of my essay was to highlight Welles' brilliance even when he is not working under the best circumstances. The Lady From Shanghai shows that even a supreme craftsperson and artist like Welles is susceptible to studio takeovers. It's a harsh reminder that the commercial has just about always accompanied the artistic. Welles' efforts to distort cinematic space and recreate it are evident in all of his films to some capacity, and it was almost refreshing to see Welles make a flawed or hacked film, given my position. Certainly the film may be "less" than his other triumphs, but that inquiry is still there. In fact, it is arguably more interesting to see such subtle craft in a film with a dime-a-dozen plot that was marred by studio interference. The formal precision coupled with the brief, seemingly sporadic humorous asides make for a wonderful viewing experience in spite of the disjointedness. Seeing these disparate sensibilites juxtaposed provides a raw portrait of cinema offering a glimpse of the various aesthetic and economic tensions from which they are born.

So I suppose I'm looking at the film less from a point of view of rate-able quality, and more from a reflexive auteurist angle. I think if we are to really run with this form of criticism, i.e. auteurism, we should look to the failures or near-misses just as much as the more accepted major works. The gaps, the lapses, and the uneasy contrasts provide a fuller vision of the artist and the work.

Greg said...

Well I am now, and have always been, a bit obsessed with Welles. I've seen everything except The Deep (but I don't think that's been released has it?), The Other Side of the Wind (same unreleased status) and The Immortal Story. But everything from Chimes at Midnight and before I've seen and I can tell you that I find Welles to be a wonder. The opening shots of Othello, the stylized sets and feel of Macbeth, the wide open shadowy spaces of The Trial. What fascinates me with Welles are the minor films, the ones made on a shoestring over many years of stops and starts, like Mr. Arkadin. They fascinate me because despite bad film stock, uneven acting, poor continuity and the other disadvantages that come from making films this way, there remain so many intriguing shots, so many inventive visuals.

When you watch his films, from Kane to Ambersons to Touch of Evil and realize that despite having three different cinematographers they all share much the same look, it becomes clear that Welles was the visual authority on all of his films. This comes through on the low budget later works as well. You can imagine Welles on the set of Arkadin, frustrated that he has no money, annoyed that he is using old stock and no proper lights but saying, "I don't care if we don't have the time for it, I'm digging a hole and setting this camera in it so we can get a bug's eye vantage point of Bracco walking past the camera. And yes I know it's a throwaway shot, I don't care!"

That's what you see with his low budget work: A rigorous resolve to still do everything in his power to give the film style and visual meaning, no matter what the circumstances.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for commenting, Jonathan!

You make a number of a good points, and you've eloquently summed up the reasons for auteurist criticism to focus on the smaller achievements in a canonized filmmaker's filmography.

It's also nice to have the input of a Welles expert, which I most certainly am not. The Lady From Shanghai, despite its status as a larger budget Welles feature represents the first film of his where I noticed more than just the quintessential auteur and aesthetic perfection. I saw the same commitment to visual invention and filmmaking craft, but not the same execution. And the most interesting aspect about my experience with the movie is that I can almost say I liked it more because of that.

I can't wait to dive into more of his films.