House of Mirrors

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI:

If you're confused, you're supposed to be.


When I worked in film and video production, I once flew to Minnesota to work on a documentary about children of alcoholics and drug users.   One day we filmed at the offices of an art therapist, where some of these children, given crayons and paper, drew pictures of their traumas.   One boy drew a picture of himself and his brother hiding in their room and barricading the door while drunk and out-of-control parents were battling downstairs.   It was a landscape of conflicting loyalties and unstable surroundings, created with nervy strokes and lopsided images.   He called the drawing "The Bad Night."   In examining the 1947 film The Lady from Shanghai, that movie could be called Orson Welles' Bad Night.

The Lady from Shanghai – the only film collaboration of Orson Welles and his second wife, actress Rita Hayworth – was written and filmed during the hesitant and uncomfortable period in their relationship between the public announcement of divorce proceedings and receiving a final divorce decree:   an on-again/off-again process that would last (due to Hayworth's emotional dependence on Welles, and Welles' financial dependence on Hayworth) three years.   Ironically, the divorce process lasted longer than the marriage.

When lovers dissolve a relationship there are second thoughts, regrets, obsessive reviews of what went right and what went wrong, second guesses of personal choices and emotional reactions, and often guilt.   The habits, secrets and psychopathologies of the significant others, which had been a part of a couple's daily intimacies and challenges, begin the glacial process of moving into each lover's psychic background once they have separated.

Despite the divorce, on the day he died Welles declared Hayworth the great love of his life; she stated her life with him was the happiest time of her life.   Their passions were consuming; their relationship was toxic.   The personal dynamics of their marriage are perplexing.   So, of course, their one collaboration is also confusing.

In the final days of 1945, Orson Welles left his wife and their eleven-month-old daughter to work in New York, developing a new Cole Porter musical based on Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.   Abandoned (and weary of Welles' absorption in work and serial adultery), Rita filed for divorce.   Financial troubles with the gargantuan (and ultimately disastrous) stage production led Welles to ask for a $25,000 loan from Columbia Studio's head (and Rita Hayworth's boss) Harry Cohn.   Cohn agreed on the condition that Welles direct a low-budget thriller for the studio.

By this time Welles had another girlfriend, French actress Barbara Laage, whom he wanted to cast as the female lead in the new film, but Hayworth campaigned to studio chief Cohn for the title role:   she wanted an attempt at reconciliation and believed that being under Welles' direction would bring out a better actress in her.   Cohn agreed to cast Hayworth:   teaming a husband and wife (labeled "Beauty and the Brain" by the media of the day) would mean great box-office for the studio.

The script Welles fashioned for The Lady from Shanghai was injected with ideations of guilt, shame, helplessness and self-annihilation.   But, in looking at the dynamics of the love between Hayworth and Welles, and at the demons from their pasts (including incest and alcoholic parents) which acted themselves out in their relationship, one can see that many disjointed, non-linear happenings in the film have deep connections with the couple's l'amour fou.

Rita's jealousies and insecurities were exacerbated by Orson's unstoppable appetite for extramarital sex and total absorption in his creative work.   Welles felt helpless and guilty by the end of the marriage – two primary traits of Orson's character Michael O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai.   (One crystallizing line of dialog Welles wrote for his character has O'Hara surveying the sunny and halcyon coast of Acapulco while musing, "It's a bright, guilty world…")   In their marriage, Rita had deep yearnings (reconciliation, professional respect, and – pegging hopes on Welles' career aspirations – ultimately giving up the Hollywood career she detested to be a wife and mother) yet she knew not how to achieve them, echoed in her character Elsa's conflicting and palpable-yet-unarticulated needs and wants in Shanghai.

In Requiem for a Nun William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."   The pasts of both the director and star of The Lady from Shanghai are alive in the facets of the film:   fresh, hurting, unexamined, and damning as all unprocessed traumas are.

At the age of 15, Orson told his alcoholic father Dick Welles that he would not visit him until he stopped drinking.   Dick's alcoholism and alienation from Orson had been quite evident and traumatic during a voyage to the Far East the year before.   Soon after Orson's ultimatum, his father died of multiple organ failures in a hotel room, a death which Welles saw as his father's conscious, suicidal drinking himself to death.   Orson harbored much guilt over the decision to sever ties with his father during this time, whose death (he told biographer Barbara Leaming) left him with feelings of "anguish and pity."

Similarly, Rita Hayworth's mother passed away from alcoholism shortly after Welles and Hayworth became parents.   Yet the maternal relationship was nowhere as dark as her incestuous relationship with her father.   As her father's professional dancing partner, performing in Mexican nightclubs from the age of 13, Rita had to acquiesce to her father's sexual demands.   Victims of childhood sexual exploitation frequently display fears of abandonment, betrayal and insecurity for the balance of their lives.   These fears helped terminate the marriage of Hayworth and Welles, as Orson's behavior and temperament fed directly into her feelings of betrayal and abandonment which led to more and more erratic and destructive behavior in herself.

Yet Welles tried to protect her from predators.   Knowing about the sexual relationship with her father, he would create ways to keep the father from visiting Rita out of compassion and love for his wife.   Hayworth's first husband was equally as exploitative of Rita, taking the unknown dancer and marketing her into a movie star through manipulation and mistreatment.   He managed Rita's career by pimping her through Hollywood, sending her to sex parties on private yachts in order to further her career.   When they divorced, he blackmailed her about these episodes and threatened her with disfigurement.   Welles knew this, and again wanted to protect her.

Shared, complicated intimacies such as these are not easily digested.   These issues were fresh in the minds of both Welles and Hayworth while filming, as they had only begun to know each other three years before.

These histories come out, bleeding and unresolved, in The Lady from Shanghai:   Characters trapped in the confines of an ocean voyage with an unstable authority figure (even referencing the Far East in dialog and the film's title); the desire to protect a conflicted and ultimately unknowable woman; the wish for self-annihilation; a woman exploited and imprisoned on a yacht; the pervasive knowledge of authority figures' ability to dehumanize the unprotected.   There's even an emotionally charged scene on the dance floor of a Mexican nightclub.

From this view, The Lady from Shanghai is the best example of Art Therapy ever released by a studio during the Classical Hollywood Era.

There are other issues, formal and conceptual, that cloud the post-viewing experience of The Lady from Shanghai.   Like many Hollywood projects of Welles, the project was taken away from his control before it was released.   Viola Lawrence, editor of Shanghai and many other Hayworth films, complained to Cohn that there was an insufficient number of close-ups of the leading lady.   The close-ups added to the final release print just didn't cut, continuity-wise, and destroyed the Bazin-esque long takes of many scenes.   Additionally, although the preview audience had commented that the film score was good, new music was laid down that was not of high-concept caliber, and diminished the integrity of the project.

The one ideation from Welles' psychology that translates clearly is the creative choice of making the character of Grisby as a representation of his former boss, Nelson Rockefeller, who had recruited Welles to create It's All True, only to kill the project and shelve the footage.   But this ideation is only one of the instances where a director pokes fun at a former tyrannical boss:   Hitchcock, when finally free of his indemnity to producer David O. Selznick, whitened the hair of Raymond Burr and gave him wire-rimmed glasses to resemble the ex-boss when Burr played the murderer in Rear Window.

The parade of projected pathologies and twisted archetypes documented in The Lady from Shanghai came at a confused and toxic time in the director's life.   And much of that can be seen on the screen.   In the final scene, Welles' character leaves a bleeding, dying lover crawling to her death as he walks through a one-way, revolving iron gate to begin a new life.

Breaking up, as the saying goes, is hard to do.


- Doug Bonner, © 2008

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I am grateful to Barbara Leaming's exhaustive biographies of Welles and Hayworth [ORSON WELLES: A BIOGRAPHY and IF THIS WAS HAPPINESS]in helping clarify my statements in this essay. -- DB

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