Movie Night With Urbaniak: The Lady From Shanghai

I was, until last night, completely unfamiliar with The Lady From Shanghai. Mr.

  wanted to see this 1947 Orson Welles picture for the performance of Glenn Anders, who plays a giggling, weird, creepy heavy, and I was interested because I haven’t seen enough Welles.

James has a fondness for oddball, standout performances, anything that possesses a twist of surreality but is nonetheless grounded in some kind of emotional reality. Mr. Anders does not disappoint in this regard — he fills his scenes with weird, off-balance, unique intensity and the energy of the movie noticeably deflates when he disappears from the narrative.

When James comes over for movie night, silent contemplation is not the order of the day. The two of us essentially talk through the movie, discussing the various performances — what the actor seems to have been told to do, how he or she deals with challenges of the scene and larger narrative, how his or her makeup works (or does not), what he or she seems to be striving for and how he or she achieves his or her goal or falls short.

Welles movies are great to watch in this regard and The Lady of Shanghai in particular has a peculiar assortment of performances in it. Everett Sloan and Glenn Anders seem to be in one movie, nominal star Rita Hayworth in a second, and Welles in a third. They’re even lit and made up differently, so that when Welles cuts from one to another in the midst of a dialog scene, one’s face will be shiny with sweat while the other’s will be given a matte finish, one will be lit with a distorting, grotesque light and the other will be lit like a movie star. The performances are all good, but sometimes seem to literally be taking place in different movies. How much of this is intentional I have no idea.

Whenever a performance as odd as Anders’s comes along, I, crouching under my screenwriter hat, must stop and wonder what the director was after. In this case, I think Welles directed Anders to be so strange and unsettling in order to distract from the big reveal at the end of the movie, which, if you’ve seen a few noirs in your life, isn’t that big a reveal.

The only really bad performance is Welles’s — he’s miscast in a part that is a genre type, the homicidal, simple-minded “big lug” who’s bound to be manipulated by the smarter, cannier society folk who have a use for him. On top of being obviously “too smart” for the role, Welles puts on a distracting, phony-baloney Irish brogue that somehow makes him sound more like The Brain than himself. It’s a very “technical” performance, full of all sorts of wonderful tricks and intellectual nuances, designed to draw attention to the actor’s proficiency than an emotional truth.

Whenever I watch a Welles movie, I cannot help but be reminded of the Coen Brothers. They have similar outlooks on acting and have no trouble finding (or creating) contexts for all manner of oversized, twisted, exaggerated performances. Somehow, they have been able to spin gold out of this outlook in a way Welles, another cinematic visionary, never could. The Lady of Shanghai could have easily been a Coen Bros movie, an eclectic noir with indelible characters, a skewed point of view and a twisty, unpredictable story.
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RKO 281

Orson Welles incurs the wrath of William Randolph Hearst when he makes Citizen Kane. An important story about the collision of art and commerce, told in a brisk, enjoyable, coherent, straight-ahead fashion.

In the manner of most TV movies, it is overlit, overacted, oversimplfied and over-explained. In the manner of most biographical dramas, compression renders complex relationships into two-line exchanges, scenes where Famous People trade Statements instead of human beings conversing.  The characters almost wear name tags and plot points are telegraphed far in advance.  John Logan, who wrote the screenplay, went on to write many very good scripts, including the similar The Aviator, which gets the Famous Person Biography genre with much more panache, grace and detail.

The presence of Brenda Blethyn reminds me of Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert and Sullivan, which is my personal high-water mark for biographical drama of this sort. In that film, a premium is placed on observation and behavioralism; one picks up the plot as the film goes along. Here (and, honestly, in most biographical drama) the viewer is constantly reminded who everyone is and what their relationships are. Or as David Mamet puts it, people are always saying “Come in, because I am the King of France.” The drama is presented instead of inferred; the audience does little work, there are no dots to connect.

The cast is an extraordinary collection of very good actors, but sadly, whenever a group like this is assembled to play Famous, Charismatic People from the Past, all they can really do is demonstrate how we don’t have titans like that in our culture any more.

Liev Schreiber, one of my favorite actors working today, can only hint at the towering presence and commanding force that Welles possessed. I can hardly blame him; the last time I saw Welles depicted on film, it took both Vincent D’onofrio and Maurice LaMarche working together to pull it off. (It’s funny how, in yesterday’s query for films about filmmakers, Welles comes up so often, and always in such tragic terms.)

One thing that RKO 281 does that I wasn’t expecting was to make a human being out of William Randolph Hearst, and it brings up an idea that fascinates me: how does it feel to be the subject of a brilliant artist’s scathing portrait? How does it feel to be portrayed as a soulless monster by an artist with full command of his tools, to know that, no matter what else you accomplished, you will always be remembered as “that guy from Citizen Kane?” How does it feel to be the guy in Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know?” How does it feel (sorry) to be the subject of “Like a Rolling Stone?” It doesn’t matter what “your side” of the story is, the other side has already been told too well, no one would ever believe you, or care to listen.  The subject is defenseless.

Ironcially enough, it’s largely through the craft and brilliance of Citizen Kane that anyone bothers to think about William Randolph Hearst at all these days.  Also ironic is that, as much as Hearst must have hated the film, that Welles, in fact, endowed him with more pathos and sympathy than he probably deserved.
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