Tag Archives: 1940s cinema

The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai 2
The Lady from Shanghai

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 July 2014

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on the novel: If I Die before I Wake by Sherwood King

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

USA 1947

87 mins

Orson Welles’s dazzling 1947 film noir has a plot so complex that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn famously offered a cash reward to the lucky person who could explain to him what the hell was going on. But really the storyline is almost incidental to the disorientating inventiveness of The Lady from Shanghai.

Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a poetical lunk of a mariner, who has a truly atrocious Irish accent, literary ambitions, and a hefty punch when the chips are down. He provides the lyrical voice-over, explaining how he found himself all at sea, enmeshed in the machinations, double dealings and conspiracies of an amoral bunch of well-to-do whose idea of a good time is sniping at each other and thinking murderous thoughts, some of which are put into action.

‘It’s a bright, guilty world,’ says Michael O’Hara as he’s spellbound by the beautiful Elsa Bannister, wife of the country’s leading criminal barrister and played in enigmatic siren mode by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s soon to be ex-wife. O’Hara meets her in the park, saves her from thugs, sees her home and turns down her offer of a job crewing their yacht (tellingly called the Circe). It’s too late though, the staunch seafarer has already run aground – ‘I did not use my head, except to think of her’ – and he sets sail on the kind of voyage that could get a man killed, or at the very least, wrongly accused of murder.

Hayward sizzled and sashayed her way through Gilda; here her trademark red hair is cropped and bleached, (much to the chagrin of Cohn, who was hoping to cash in on her pinup status) as, wreathed in cigarette smoke, basking on rocks or softly singing, she sets about luring men to their doom. There’s Michael, who’s entranced by her white hot, ice cold approach to his approaches; her husband, Arthur Bannister, played by radio actor Everett Sloane, who knows far too much about her disreputable past (‘you need more than luck in Shanghai’); while Glen Anders, filled with maniacal glee, takes on the role of Bannister’s business partner. Smitten by Elsa, but keener on disappearing, he persuades O’Hara to pretend to kill him. It is, of course, a set-up, but not in any of the ways you expect.

Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.

But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’

A new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari will be released in UK cinemas by Eureka Entertainment on 29 August 2014, followed by a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 29 September 2014.

Eithne Farry

Watch the trailer:

Cross of Love

Cross of Love

Format: Cinema

Dates: 17-22 December 2011

Venues: ICA

Director: Teuvo Tulio

Writer: Nisse Hirn

Based on a short story by: Alexander Pushkin

Original title: Rakkauden risti

Cast: Regina Linnanheimo, Oscar Tengströ, Ville Salminen

Finland 1946

99 mins

An iris closes in on a face and bursts back outwards. A landscape shot is split open. Figures bend as the screen is folded as if it were a page in a book. When Teuvo Tulio cuts a scene, he does so with grand gestures of assertion that verge on the absurd. Brazenly melodramatic, his edits are emblematic of his film language, where shifts in the narrative are signalled and character motivations marked with gaudy metaphors. His contemporaries criticised his exaggeration, reiteration and obsession with prurience; nevertheless, for admirers since, who range from fellow Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki to cult mavericks Guy Maddin and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, satisfaction has been derived from embracing Tulio’s kitsch brushstrokes, which are delivered with conviction.

A montage of tempestuous winds and angry waves: within seconds of the opening of Cross of Love (1945), Tulio makes sure we know discord will ensue. In this adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘The Stationmaster’, Riita, the daughter of a lighthouse owner, dreams of escape until a shipwrecked playboy lures her out of her father’s grasp and, like the waves, takes her away into the city. An all too recognisable set-up, the city is of course infested with putrid greed, corrupted codes and dangerous deeds that evoke von Sternberg (Underworld, 1927) and von Stroheim (Greed, 1924). Abandoned and lost, the innocent Riita turns amoral and amorous as she caves into a life of prostitution, a fallen woman í  la G.W. Pabst’s Lulu. Cross of Love follows the patterns of Finland’s post-war ‘problem films’, which warned their viewers of social horrors (at least Riita escapes syphilis, a common fate for the genre’s characters) and incorporates betrayal and hoodwinking antagonists, themes that were censored in wartime cinema. The moral decay of the city positioned against the idyllic glow of countryside fields was also typical of Tulio’s 1940s scenarios (The Way You Wanted Me, 1944), and only a slight departure from his pre-war ‘haystack dramas’, pastoral scandals rooted and trapped within their settings (The Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938, and In the Field of Dreams, 1940).

Nevertheless, Cross of Love remains a standout and Tulio’s most impressive achievement. Riita’s plight is portrayed with a riveting sexual frankness that was remarkable for its time, and Tulio never shies away from full-frontal nudity or candid metaphors that barely conceal the lust that sinks Riita into the mud of the city streets. Just as Riita begins to lose control, she meets a young artist who asks her to model for a painting, which gives the film its title; depicting her almost nude and with her arms spread against a cross, Riita’s portrait more than evokes original sin and freezes her fall into a startling image: ‘we’re trying to capture the suffering…’ Deliciously delirious, the actress Regina Linnanheimo, whose unapologetic madness somehow elicits compassion, summons sincerity in Riita’s descent from luminescence to darkness. Occasionally, the music is so overpowering that Tulio abandons dialogue completely, instead allowing close-ups of Linnanheimo’s face to dance with Bach. At times uncomfortably florid, Tulio’s Cross of Love is melodrama at its most wildly excessive.

Julian Ross