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The Lady From Shanghai

Orson Welles: The Enigmatic Independent

Orson Welles

The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the Depression-era hope of American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over, as far as they are concerned.

Welles completed only fourteen features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic-backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane (1941), completed to Welles’ satisfaction and released in its intended form. It has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” (Sight and Sound and American Film Institute polls made it official for a time) that it’s become a dry truism. Along with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation), the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation and plain old theatrical flourish. It has a cinematic brio and love of expressive possibilities that you rarely see from directors coming to the movies from the stage, but it also is a terrific piece of storytelling. Welles brought an understanding of power of sound design from the radio and applied a sophisticated, layered soundtrack and a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann for the score. Stunningly designed to appear bigger and more lavish than its budget would support, brilliantly lit and shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.

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Orson Welles: The Enigmatic Independent

[Expanded from a piece originally published on Greencine in 2003]

“And now I’m going to tell you a story about a scorpion. A scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a frog to carry him. ‘No,’ said the frog. ‘No, thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me, and the sting of a scorpion means death.’ ‘Now, where,’ asked the scorpion, ‘is the logic of that?’ – for scorpions always try to be logical – ‘If I sting you, you will die—I will drown.’ The frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back but just in the middle of the river he felt a terrible pain and realized that after all the scorpion had stung him. ‘Logic!’ cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. ‘There is no logic in this.’ ‘I know,’ said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it – it’s my character.’ Let’s drink to character.” – Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin

Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin

The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the depression-era hope American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over.

Welles finished only 14 features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane, (1941) completed and released in its intended form. It’s has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” that’s it’s become a dry truism. With the AFI imprimatur stamped like some official seal, its reputation is in serious danger of becoming the least seen masterpiece around, and with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation) the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation, and plain old theatrical flourish. Years ahead of its time in its layered use of sound and score (a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann), stunningly designed, and brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.

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The Lady From Shanghai

[This is a slightly edited version of a program note written for an Autumn 1971 University of Washington Office of Lectures and Concerts Film Series, “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It is submitted for your consideration because The Lady from Shanghai is a cardinal film noir and the stylistic points made about Welles’s direction are relevant as noir commentary. However, the term film noir is never used; I’m sure it never occurred to the author at the time. Only a few months later, Paul Schrader’s seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir” would be published in Film Comment magazine. Then a lot of things started to change. –RTJ]

ORSON WELLES in interview: I believe you know the story of Lady from Shanghai. I was working on that spectacular theater idea Around the World in 80 Days, which was originally to be produced by Mike Todd. But, overnight, he went bankrupt and I found myself in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to take my costumes from the station because 50,000 dollars was due. Without that money we couldn’t open. At that time I was already separated from Rita; we were no longer even speaking. I did not intend to do a film with her. From Boston I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood, and I said to him, “I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me 50,000 dollars, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.” Cohn asked, “What story?” I was telephoning from the theater box office; beside it was a pocket books display and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady from Shanghai. I said to him, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later we received the money. Later I read the book and it was horrible so I set myself, top speed, to write a story. I arrived in Hollywood to make the film with a very small budget and in six weeks of shooting. But I wanted more money for my theater. Cohn asked me why I didn’t use Rita. She said she would be very pleased. I gave her to understand that the character was not a sympathetic one, and this might hurt her image as a star in the public eye. Rita was set on making this film, and instead of costing 350,000 dollars, it became a two million dollar film. Rita was very cooperative. The one who was horrified on seeing the film was Cohn.

After the not inconsiderable scandal attendant upon the filming and release of Citizen Kane, and after the preview problems and subsequent mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles suffered the further ignominy of having a film cancelled in progress: It’s All True, the grandiose documentary on Latin America…. For four years Welles, who had enjoyed guaranteed (and well-publicized) independence while working on Kane, could not get a movie job except as a performer in others’ films. In 1946 he was approached by Sam Spiegel to take a leading role in The Stranger; he asked to direct as well, and Spiegel, not wishing to risk losing his on-screen services, agreed—with the stipulation that Welles follow the script and stay within budget and schedule. Welles agreed in turn; the film was finished well within the limits specified and returned a tidy profit. This helped his reputation in the film capital but dismayed many acolytes of cinemah: here he was, lavishing his gifts on a mere suspense melodrama. Clearly an irreversible decline had set in….

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