Well, it was bound to happen.
After nine weeks of forty people gathering in a tiny Zoom room to marvel over all the 1940’s films noir that our instructor Elliot Lavine has shared with us, he finally presented a double bill of films that were, each in their way, so extreme that they managed to divide us. The violence in the air was virtually palpable. Words were exchanged. Blood was spilled. (Well, that was the cat pushing over the glass with the dregs of red wine, but still . . . )
It’s not like these two films from 1947 – Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley– hadn’t courted controversy and divided opinion. Audiences were justifiably puzzled by the first and shunned the second. Critics echoed their sentiments. Cut to the present where Welles’ film is considered by many to be his best; the British Film Institute named it “one of the ten best films of all time” in 2012. And Nightmare Alley has grown in cult status, to the point where excitement is brewing over a remake coming out at the end of the year, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett.
This was my first time viewing both films, and my opinion . . . well, it gets complicated.
*. *. *. *. *. *
Orson Welles was one of the most extraordinary figures in Hollywood history – just ask him. Every stage of his career seems the stuff of myth, possibly because it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the degree of truth around each tale he told. Did he really have dinner with Hitler? Did he really bluff his way into the company of Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre at the age of 16? There’s no doubt that his achievements – on stage, in radio and film – occurred at a remarkably young age. It’s absolutely true that he caused a national panic and had to answer to Congress after his Mercury Theatre radio production of War of the Worlds aired. Or that RKO gave a 25-year-old neophyte the reins to direct, produce, co-write and star in his first film, a thinly fictionalized attack on the most powerful journalist in America.
When Elliot told us in our class that The Lady from Shanghai nearly ended Welles’ career, I laughed long and hard. (Fortunately, I was muted.) That’s because everything Welles did nearly ended his career. Citizen Kane gained him the enmity of anyone in William Randolph Hearst’s orbit. After he presented a rough cut of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio sent him on a job in South America so that they could chop his film to bits. As a result, all the work he did on his third film, Journey into Film, was done incognito.
Last night, a fellow student commented on Shanghai, saying, “Maybe if Welles had allowed someone else to collaborate with him . . . “ and Elliot laughed and said, “They wouldn’t have enjoyed it.” The ego of the man is as legendary as his work. This was the guy who put the classics on the radio waves and starred in all of them. He played Jean Valjean. He played the Shadow. He played Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty – in the same production. (Fellow mystery fans may know he performed a similar task with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, playing Hercule Poirot and the murderer.) Frankly, I don’t know how he could have survived all the professional notoriety without an ego the size of . . . well, of Orson Welles. And, for the most part, I love it. I love the stories that swirl around him (my guess is that most of them were of his own making). But most of all, I love the product.
I will acknowledge that there is not a natural moment in all of Citizen Kane. It is a study in the art form. Every shot can be analyzed for placement, angle, lighting. The sound design is extraordinary. And somehow, with the control he exerted, Welles got some stupendous performances out of his cast, making stars of many of the Mercury players. I have probably watched Kane a hundred times, and I still get something new out of it with each viewing.
So I was prepared for the artifice of Welles’ guiding hand as I sat down to watch The Lady from Shanghai. This time, however, too many other factors interfered with my pleasure, and I find myself at a crossroads. Like Ambersons, Shanghai has a choppy feeling that comes partly from the fact that, once again, the studio laid hands on an Orson Welles rough cut and excised an hour of footage. There are parts of the story that simply do not make sense. (What exactly is Grisby’s plan?) And director/producer/writer/star Orson Welles’ Irish accent is terrible!
For those in last night’s class who extolled the film, none of these issues matter: it’s all about the imagery. And the imagery is quite something. The story behind the film is also a worthy addition to the Welles mythos. He was directing a stage version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (of course he was). Working with Mike Todd (who would later make the movie version) and Cole Porter, Welles promised to deliver a production that would shatter audience perceptions of what they could expect to see on stage.
And then he ran out of money.
Needing $47.000 for costumes, Welles contacted Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Studios, who had Welles’ wife, Rita Hayworth, under contract, and offered him a deal: if Cohn would wire him the money immediately, Welles promised to direct/produce/write and star in a film for him for no additional money. It didn’t take Cohn long to see what a deal he had here. The money was sent, Around the World opened (and closed after 75 performances), and then Welles went to meet Cohn, who asked, “Okay, what’s this film you’re going to make for me?”
Welles’ story is that as he was walking into the office, he spied a novel on the receptionist’s desk, grabbed it, and pretended to Cohn that he had read it and would make a film out of it. The novel was If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King. Cohn, thinking this would make a lovely 90-minute mystery starring Welles and his luscious, red-haired wife, bought the rights to the book. But then Welles turned in a two-and-a-half hour rough cut starring a Rita Hayworth whose red locks had been shorn and dyed blonde . . . and the fight was on.
Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish (????????) sailor who has a chance meeting with a beautiful woman named Elsa (Hayworth) in Central Park and soon after saves her life when she is set upon by muggers. But was is by chance, or did Elsa set the whole thing up? Meh, I don’t care. She invites Michael to be a sailor on her husband’s yacht, but he has no intention of messing around with a married woman and declines. The next day, Arthur Bannister, the world’s most renowned criminal defense attorney, approaches Michael and offers him a job on his private crew – of course, Bannister is Elsa’s husband. He’s also played by Everett Sloane, a mainstay of the Mercury Players. In Citizen Kane, Sloane played Mr. Bernstein, arguably the kindest character in the film; here, he plays the direct opposite, a truly horrible man.
The ship sets sail for San Francisco via the Panama Canal. (Another fight between Welles and Cohn was that the studio chief liked his movies made on the cheap in the studio, but Welles insisted on location shooting, borrowing Errol Flynn’s private yacht for the purpose.) Soon the party is joined by Bannister’s legal partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders.) This is Grisby:
I don’t know even know what more to say about Grisby. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
As you can imagine, a trip from New York to San Francisco through the Panama Canal is long enough for passions to burn – lust, hatred, greed. It’s all there! And by the time they get to the City by the Bay, a plan has been hatched that I can only imagine must have confused Michael about as much as half our class, but he goes along with it anyway, playing the perfect patsy for the chance to run away with Elsa. It all leads to one of the most infuriating murder trials I have ever witnessed on film. Honestly, the “humor” of this trial made me gnash my teeth and long for the relative simplicity of our first week’s film, Stranger on the Third Floor. However, the aftermath of the trial brings us the film’s most thrilling set pieces: a fist-fight in the judge’s chambers, a chase through Chinatown, and – most famous of all – a climactic shoot-out in the all of mirrors at Playland-by-the-Beach.
All of this is visually stunning, if a bit chopped up and artificial. By far, my favorite aspect of the film was the way that Welles shot Rita Hayworth. Even without her red hair, she is stunningly beautiful, with a face that evokes so many emotions. Whether elegantly sitting in a horse-drawn carriage at the start, or diving into the Caribbean waters near the yacht, there’s no doubt that Welles had powerful feelings for his star, who also happened to be his wife (but not for long – they would divorce immediately after the film was done.)
Thus, with The Lady from Shanghai, I find myself at a difficult crossroads. This is not a film I want to watch alone again. This is a film to be studied with fans of noir, of Welles, of this film. I count myself an avid member of two of these clubs. I need some help before I can join the third.
*. *. *. *. *. *
We move from Columbia to 20th Century Fox and from Harry Cohn to Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck’s big star on the lot, Tyrone Power had grown tired of playing Zorro and other heroes. He had had a successful taste in 1946 of a complex role in The Razor’s Edge; now, he wanted to play a rat.
One of the most sensational novels of ’46 was Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, another of your troubled authors, whose fascination with carnival sideshows had begun when he was a child in New York and visited one on Coney Island. The book chronicles in sordid detail the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a barker and con man whose mastery of a code for psychics that he wormed out of adoring fortune teller Zeena proves his ticket out of the carnival and into the Chicago night club circuit. Of course, this being noir, his meteoric rise is followed by a stunning crash to earth where he loses everything and sinks to the lowest of the low – a carnival geek.
Tyrone Power wanted to play the geek.
The biggest problem for me with the film was the same one I have with murder mysteries where the solution becomes apparent on page three. (For those of you who are not mystery readers, the truth is that, while we all think we like to play armchair detective while reading Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, the vast majority of us prefer to be hoodwinked in the end.)
When Power’s Stan Carlisle walks up to the pit where the gathered crowd is watching the geek bite the heads off chickens, he asks a fellow carny where something as foul and loathesome as a geek could possibly come from. I looked at Power’s handsome features, shook my head, and muttered, “You’ll find out in an hour and fifty minutes or so, buddy!” And that’s exactly the trajectory that this character travels. That journey consists of Stan being a pretty loathsome human being to nearly everyone in his life: he accidentally (?) murders Zeena’s (Joan Blondell) hopelessly alcoholic husband/stage partner, worms the psychic code out of her, romances the beautiful electric girl, Molly (Coleen Gray), away from the strong man (Mike Mazurki), and later on partners up with Dr. Lilith Ritter, a high-toned Chicago psychotherapist (Helen Walker) to bilk her rich patients out of money by pretending to contact their dead loved ones.
The guy is scum, and Power enjoys playing him to the hilt. Contemporary audiences were not pleased with their Zorro turning evil, and the film flopped. I don’t have that sort of prejudice against Power because I know him best for his final film role as Leonard Vole in Witness for the Prosecution. By then, he was too old to play that part, but play it he did, and very well. I can’t say I ever warmed to him as Stan or to the story, although it is a very unusual and exotic tale by noir standards. It’s beautifully directed by Edmund Goulding, who made Grand Hotel, one of the great multi-star melodramas, and had worked with Bette Davis on several of her best films, including Dark Victory and Old Acquaintance. Fresh from working with Power on The Razor’s Edge, he clearly has a field day turning this hero into a creep. It was shot by Lee Garmes, one of those cinematographers with a 60-year long career, who evidently shot much of Gone with the Wind without receiving credit.
What makes this movie so good for me is the trio of actresses who play the women in Stanton Carlisle’s life. Last week, I wrote an essay about the femme fatale, and while I would never profess that anything I pen here is the definitive word on anything, I couldn’t help but feel while watching Nightmare Alley that I know very little and that no concept or idea can be pinned down to an easy definition. Blondell, Gray, and Walker confound my expectations and those of anyone who comes to a film noir thinking they know how women will be handled or portrayed.
Last week, I wrote in part:
“You can tell the femme fatale in a film from certain qualities that make her stand off from the rest: she’s sexier, she’s livelier, she’s more interesting, she’s usually played by a bigger star than the good girl is (unless the good girl gets to go undercover as a bad girl, as in Phantom Lady.) She preys on a good man’s weakness or a weak man’s badness. When she comes upon a strong good man, she is the weakness. Sometimes, her own kryptonite is the bad guy, who makes her melt even when he slugs her (Scarlet Street); but just as often (Double Indemnity, Out of the Past), it makes no difference if the man is a saint of a snake – the ff chews them up and spits them out!”
None of this applies to the women of Nightmare Alley. I suppose you could argue that there is no femme fatale here, but then what would you call Dr. Lilith Ritter? The name “Lilith” connotes the first woman, made of the same clay as Adam, who refuses to bow in supplication to man – so God starts over. Lilith Ritter is smart and tight, her hair in a tight upsweep, her body clothed in severe professional suits. She plays everything close to the vest: even her attraction to Stan is revealed through the most casual of passes, and when he declines, she shrugs and moves on. In the end, she does not destroy him through his passions, oh no! Every move Lilith makes is one of sheer intellect, and her final scene, where she literally psyches Stan out, is terrifying.
In this film, the sensual women are also the good girls. Zeena is warm and caring for her husband, taking responsibility for his fall due to her earlier infidelities and vowing to be a good wife to him. While she falls for Stan’s line, she is never totally unaware that it is a con. Even though he casts her aside for Molly, you don’t feel that Zeena has been cast aside. She and the strong man take it upon themselves to force Stan to make an honest woman out of Molly, and then Zeena offers her hand in friendship – only to have it rejected by Stan out of his own guilt for the mess he made of her life.
As Molly, Coleen Gray is a revelation to me. I only knew her from two later roles, and I had forgotten both of them. (One of these was a terrible horror movie called The Leech Woman, but the other is the 1971 TV adaptation of Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails, called Don’t Look Behind You, where she plays the small but pivotal role of Mrs. Cazalis.) According to an interview I watched with her, Gray’s husband at the time brought her the book and told her to read it. She then put on a brave face, walked into Darryl Zanuck’s office, and told him she was born to play Molly. According to Gray, Zanuck smiled and said, “It depends on who we get to play the geek. If it’s a big name, then we can afford to cast nobody’s as the women.” It’s a lovely way to speak to one of your contract players, but it all worked out in the end.
Molly is one of those roles where you just keep waiting for her to fall prey to one of Stan’s schemes or betrayals and have her life ruined for all time. She clearly loves this man, and it’s fair to say that partnering with her was the best decision Stan ever made. She functions as a conscience, as so many good girls do for weak noir men, but she is much more effective. In a powerful scene where she comes to learn about Stan’s plans to contact the dead, she accuses him of playing God and threatens to leave him. The most heartbreaking aspect of the story is how Molly wants to believe in Stan so badly that she allows herself to accept his claim that his work is making his “clients” feel better. This leads to a stunning reversal and the beginning of the end for The Great Stanton.
The book ends on a horribly grim note, but the movie can’t help but take into account the good influence Molly has on Stan and tack on a slightly more hopeful final scene. You certainly can’t call it a happy ending, as the implication is that Molly and Stan will replay the sad fate of Zeena and her husband. It’s the perfect ending for a fascinatingly different sort of film noir, with its exotic setting and its equal emphasis on human relationships along with crime and punishment. I wonder what Guillermo del Toro will make of all of this.
*. *. *. *. *. *
Next time marks the final chapter in our ten-week journey through some of the best of film noir, and Elliot has promised us a treat: a triple-bill from arguably the finest “B” picture cinematographer of all time: John Alton.