When Orson Welles died in 1985, I was hauled into the BBC’s Newsnight studio to explain why the great man had made so few films of note beyond Citizen Kane. Those ubiquitous sherry ads were also quoted as part and parcel of his failure.
Maybe in those days culture wasn’t much part of the programme’s remit. But it was a challenge to counter the presenter’s absurd argument, even when hastily mentioning masterpieces such as The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. Then, of course, there was The Lady from Shanghai, now available to see in London and all over the country in a superb new restoration.
A thriller cum film noir, it was financed by Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, who hated the film Welles delivered so much that he had it extensively shortened and re-edited. He also put on a music track Welles despised and emasculated the extraordinary funhouse hall-of-mirrors sequences that caused the film to be proclaimed a masterpiece, especially in Europe.
Try as he might, Welles’ sympathetic producer couldn’t persuade Cohn that leaving just three minutes out of the original 20 would not suffice.
Cohn didn’t know what to make of a director who was more interested in the visuals of the film than orthodox plot points, and who cut and coloured the iconic flowing locks of Rita Hayworth — who collaborated successfully with Welles despite the recent collapse of their marriage.
Maybe some will think Cohn was right to tamper with the film; even some of its supporters regard it as “the weirdest classic of all time”. But despite the studio head’s ministrations, The Lady From Shanghai remains a gorgeous, tongue-in-cheek riff on film noir that tries out so much that was new at the time that film-makers even now study it for helpful hints.
The Lady From Shanghai is now showing at BFI Southbank and Curzon Soho