1940s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

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Director/Screenwriter: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles long served a cultural function as the emblematic genius discarded by Hollywood, doomed by the wrath of the kitsch Olympians to only to manage a singular labour of creative awe, Citizen Kane (1941), before being forced to scrimp his way through a fragmentary and disappointing subsequent oeuvre. That narrative for Welles’ career has long since been challenged and revised, and whilst it’s certainly true Welles and Hollywood never got along, they continued a long, uneasy dialogue for decades, and Welles only finally abandoned all hope of making a final Hollywood film in the early 1980s. Following the infamous collapse of his deal with RKO, resulting in the dumped release of a crude edit of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles ventured to South America on a war effort-enabling goodwill tour, during which he worked on the multipart docudrama It’s All True, only to suffer another aborted project and accompanying corrosion to his professional reputation. As an actor, Welles quickly regained footing when he returned to the US, resuming stage and radio work as well as gaining traction as a movie star. He also married his fellow goodwill ambassador Rita Hayworth, who arrived during World War II as one of the hottest properties in movies.

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Thanks to arduous, self-effacing negotiations with studio honchos, Welles made his directorial comeback with The Stranger (1946), which, despite flashes of his visual ingenuity and aesthetic and thematic fixations, sufficiently fulfilled his promise to make a ‘normal’ movie. Welles was rewarded with a proper box office success, although his backers still welched on a deal to produce four more of his films. Welles went to Broadway to stage a flashy adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, only for producer Mike Todd to suddenly pull out. Welles tapped Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn for cash he ploughed into the doomed project, on the promise of writing, directing, and starring in a movie for him without further recompense. Welles took on an adaptation of Sherwood Kingsley’s crime novel If I Should Die Before I Wake, purportedly at the urging of William Castle, and Cohn gave Welles the green light to make the movie also featuring Hayworth. Cohn’s sense of prerogative over Hayworth’s career had already been offended by her and Welles’ union, which he deemed insufficiently glamorous, and he was properly livid when the resulting film’s rough cut was screened for him, revealing Welles’ new look for her with short, platinum blonde hair. Cohn didn’t much like the rest of the film either and had it extensively recut and reshot, reinforcing Welles’ reputation as a mercurial spendthrift. Although The Lady From Shanghai did reasonably good box office again, it was still fated to mark Welles’ break with the major Hollywood studios.

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Great as Welles’ films are, none of them feels quite as urgent and personally exposed as The Lady From Shanghai, save perhaps his final, pieced-together opus The Other Side of the Wind (2018). The film’s gadabout affectations, the giddy humour and overt ridicule of neat plot rhythms and Welles’ music hall Irish accent, can’t conceal the film’s real emotional tenor, one of anger – anger with love, anger with self, anger with the world. Cohn in turn was incensed by the film for good reason, as it presented, amongst many other things, Welles’ poison pen letter to the dawning atomic age and American capitalism, his bitterest, most biting commentary on the politics of sexual possession as espoused in Hollywood, and a return to Citizen Kane’s preoccupation with the insidious gravity of power and money in warping normal human relations. This time he cast himself as a lovestruck interloper rather than the all-consuming man of destiny, a choice that betrayed Welles’ jaundiced new perspective. Spurred by the slow spoiling of his marriage and his frustration in falling from boy titan to harried supplicant, as well as his unease within the rapidly changing zeitgeist in the post-war period, Welles responded with a film lit in a sulphurous glare, fuelled by smouldering, even despairing anxieties. It’s also perhaps Welles’ most stylistically extreme film, an aspect actually amplified by Cohn’s reediting, and the violence of technique enters a feedback loop with the overtone of emotional burnout.

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Welles happily occupied a contradictory position as an artist, the frustrated classicist and tragedian who delighted in playing comic book heroes and who grasped the epic potentials in pulp fiction. The Lady From Shanghai and its companion piece Touch of Evil (1958) saw him collapsing boundaries between high and low cultural argots, turning the seamy, worldly obsessions of film noir into high Shakespearean evocations of love, treachery, and penance. Welles initially turns King’s story into a jokey pastiche of knight errant tales, with his character Michael O’Hara the nominated dumb Quixote, a man who testifies in his opening narration, “I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly am not.” O’Hara flirts with the beautiful lady, Elsa (Hayworth), he sees trundling by in a Central Park carriage and then saves her from a gang of hoods who knock out the cabbie and try to rob and rape her. The sarcastic lilt of pre-Raphaelite romanticism, as Michael ventures into the well-pruned parkland serving as virgin forest to rescue the damsel and then commandeers the carriage to ferry her homeward in gentlemanly style, quickly collides with the grease and concrete aesthetic of a Manhattan car park, a nest of Futurist swoops and curves and blocks.

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There various imps of ill-fortune lurk and dangle, the heavy with a tragedy mask for a face, Broome (Ted De Corsia), and the dough-faced George Grisby (Glenn Anders) both on hand for vicarious jollies as Michael realises the lady he’s saved is the wife of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan), a notoriously brilliant and utterly ruthless defence lawyer, a man known to a man like Michael only as figure of awe and dark magic in anecdotes but about to become an all too familiar acquaintance. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons both revolved a stung sense of nostalgia, ransacked for discrepancy but never entirely demystified, for a slower, quieter past where iniquity was balanced by the comfort of set order, as compared to the oncoming spree of hypermodern angst, where even the go-getters and empire builders felt alien to themselves. Destructive and intransigent as they were, Charlie Kane and George Amberson Minafer were also trapped as mediating figures, spanning the days of the aristocrat and modernity, where Bannister and Elsa are pure-sprung creatures of their moment.

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By contrast, The Lady From Shanghai satirises O’Hara’s status as a man also out of time and joint, sailor, soldier. A man who, even though he’s been all around the world and killed whilst fighting fascists in Spain, nonetheless retains the aura of the eternal naïf, a man who’s lost contact with a vital piece of himself, a Hercules who partakes of eating the lotus and forgets his mission. Welles couches Michael as the emblematic working class hero, admired and feared by his pals to equal degrees as a guy who’s “got a lot of blarney in him but he knows how to hurt a man when he gets mad,” imbued with a faint lustre of legend because of “what he did to them finks back in ’39,” a lustre later turned against him with an overheard radio broadcast characterises him, in one of the film’s throwaway flourishes of carbolic wit, as “Black Irish O’Hara, the notorious waterfront agitator.” He’s glimpsed banging away on a typewriter in the seamen’s hiring hall in front of a poster that read, “We Accept All Americans,” a pointed dying echo of the credo that had during the war become something like an official ethos.

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Bannister tracks him to that place, to hire him to crew his yacht, ostensibly seeking him as a proven good guy, Mephistopheles to grasp his Faust. “You’ve been too busy seeing the world to learn anything about it,” Bannister informs Michael. “What’s a tough guy?” Jake Bjornsen (Louis Merrill), one of Michael’s sailor pals and a former comrade from Spain, tells Bannister as he applies that label to Michael: “A guy with an edge…A gun or a knife, a knife-stick or a razor, something the other guy ain’t got. Yeah, a little extra reach on a punch, a set of brass knuckles, a stripe on the sleeve, a badge that says ‘cop’ on it, a rock in your hand or a bankroll in your pocket.” Welles uses this speech to set in play not just the film’s essential plot, but also to subvert the general basis of noir storytelling in a romanticised envisioning of working class violence and the folk heroic figure of the underclass badass. Bannister’s jealousy of Michael’s physical prowess is more than outpaced by his capacity for brutality leveraged by other means, and the thug in the alley with a switchblade isn’t half as scary as an aggrieved plutocrat with his hooks in you.

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Sloan’s Bannister is one of the great screen monstrosities, a courtroom marauder who walks with canes like a mincing praying mantis, his high, crackly voice shifting between registers of slurred, liquored-up aggravation and clipped, precise assassination: the way Sloan pronounces “lover” does to the word what Exxon did to the Alaskan shoreline. The triangle of Michael, Elsa, and Bannister plays at least on the surface as a lampoon on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, down to the crippled rich man as emblem of a twisted modern age, but with woodland renascence swapped for dread-caked globetrotting and penny dreadful conspiracies where the promise of sex is part of the trap rather than a mode of escape. Welles gleefully steals imagery and textures from ‘40s travel posters and the promised high life of Hollywood’s fantasias as portrays the Bannisters’ voyage about Central and South America, with Elsa’s commodity physique celebrated in rest and motion, high-diving from rocks into the sea, splayed out the yacht deck whilst warbling a gently seductive ditty. The siren updated, coming on to Michael in playing another abused and frightened subcontractor wondering if the price paid in anxiety is worth the paycheque. Accompanying the holidays are Bannister’s nominal law partner Grisby, his hired PI and minder Broome, Michael’s pal and deck hand ‘Goldie’ Goldfish (Gus Schilling), and Bannister’s cook Bessie (Evelyn Ellis). A potent, simmering attraction seems to manifest between Michael and Elsa, but the real seduction is between Michael and Grisby, who offers Michael a wad of cash for a simple job: to confess to murdering him.

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Welles’ archly theatrical and equally arch cineaste sides, held in balance in his first films, came into conflict in The Lady From Shanghai. The film is littered with verbal soliloquies and passages of visual delirium, creating a tension that finally snaps the elastic in the finale as Michael rattles off a synopsis of the plot whilst assailed by surreal images, the lingual, factual, and experiential realms crumbling before the onslaught of images evoking surrender to the absurd, dismissing the usual mechanics of the thriller story as mere detail in a story that’s much more about consuming chaos. Michael’s narration carries much of the weight of the actual storytelling, certainly to patch over some of the editing but also investing it with a palpable sense of Michael’s bewildered and stricken romanticism. Bjornsen’s speech about tough guys is the first of several lengthy, memorable discourses delivered throughout, followed by Bannister’s acidic commentary on the power of money as a vehicle not merely for survival but revenge, and Michael’s anecdote about witnessing a shark feeding frenzy that saw the beasts turn on each-other cannibalistically, implying the Bannisters and their cohort are behaving the same way. Bannister’s commentary reveals himself as a man who himself is reacting to memories of being an outsider under the thumb of the rich, describing with relish how he destroyed a man who kept his mother out of a club he owned for being of an undesirable ethnicity, whilst also noting that Bessie prays she’ll never be too old to earn the money he pays her to support her family.

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This scene captures Welles’ coldest and most concise analysis of capitalism as a by-product of human urges, the desire for dominance and supremacy and a precise weighing of the “trickle-down” effect of wealth untinted, at least, by noblesse oblige hypocrisy. The Lady From Shanghai emerges as a more politically analytical and revealing film than Citizen Kane, even before it invokes nuclear terror as the new existential state, the bitter taste in the post-war triumphalism. Grisby hovers around, snatching privileged glimpses of Elsa and Michael’s simmering attraction and teasing them with his knowledge, before making overtures to Michael to be his fictional assassin, cover for some convoluted scheme to claim his own insurance and sail off to some remote clime where he’ll be safe “when they start dropping those bombs.” Bannister already resembles a post-apocalyptic thing, the first of the many atomic monsters that would start loping across screens in following years. Welles later reported he gave Sloan canes to walk with to give the actor, still relatively fresh out of radio, something distinctively physical to cover his inexperience, but the theme of creeping disease and sexual amanuensis is too tightly wound into the story to ignore.

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The new look Welles imposed on Hayworth, so startling and offensive to Cohn and others, anticipated the 1950s’ run of platinum blondes as the embodiment of a plush and acquisitive age’s ideal of femininity, when Marilyn Monroe would corner the market to near-mystical perfection in playing the blonde as status symbol love object. Hayworth as Elsa is the atomic bomb in human form, the flash of brilliance on her crown and blood on the lips and the black ash of fallout in her eyes. The beasts of the aquarium where Michael and Elsa meet look forward to the aquatic beds of Godzilla and the Gill Man. The Lady From Shanghai can be seen as much Welles’ metaphor for his permanent yet agonising love affair with the filmmaking world as for his faltering relationship with Hayworth, although the two things were surely linked – how could Welles entirely repudiate a change of profession that helped him marry the most beautiful woman in the world? Trying desperately to hold on to these extraordinary gifts straight out of the dream life he’d discovered, in the face of petty dictators and profit margins. Things constantly happen to Michael in ways that leave him completely mystified as to why they’re happening, the temptations and repudiations wielded by power alike wielded with capricious verve in a way that must have felt very true to experiences with the studios.

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What a fresh sense of irony Welles, the boy wonder out of pinko theatrical climes with the New Deal ideals, must have gained contending with such outsized provocations to lust and wonder in Hollywood, moving from the relatively abstract evocations of trophy wives and malign plutocrats in Citizen Kane to this electro-Hogarthian stew where the feeling is palpable. The film canters to its climax and it seems less that Michael and Bannister represent Welles and his tycoon nemeses than, finally, it represents the warring sides of Welles himself, the image-maker and the desperate husband: “Killing you is killing myself,” Bannister tells Elsa, suddenly revealed as the actual tragic lover in the story. Hayworth had, with Gilda (1946), nailed down a specific persona as the girl who seems corrupt purely by dint of her incarnation of sinful temptations, but is actually covertly virtuous, a persona she’d later be forced to take to a biblical extreme when she played Salome. Welles upended basic image expectations not just in look but in character: Elsa proves to be a killer and schemer whilst all the while seeming like an innocent, soulful and tremulous in her pathos. The desire to believe Elsa is good is nonetheless a compelling fiction not just for Michael but also for Bessie, who regards her as the poor child at the mercy of the monster, so perfectly does she embody a vessel of elevated fantasy. The name of Bannister’s yacht gives the warning – Circe, the sorceress who turns men to swine.

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Part of The Lady From Shanghai’s strange beauty resides in the way Elsa remains a creature of perfect ambiguity even after she’s unmasked, creature of manifold realities, a woman who was “taught to love in Chinese” in “the second wickedest city in the world,” (Michael nominates Macao as number one, a place Welles would finally visit for The Immortal Story, 1968). She’s product of political ructions and cultural collisions, trying to survive a uniquely cruel marriage but also determined not to be thrust back into the cold, especially when, as Michael’s pleas prove, capitalism’s gravity can only be countered by a kind of sentimental romanticism. “Now he knows about us,” Elsa says after Grisby had witnesses them in a clinch. “I wish I did,” Michael quips. Elsa’s attempt to seduce Michael into a kiss earns a slap instead, the film’s most electric moment of physical intimacy giving way to Elsa silently and shakily jamming a cigarette between her lips and lights it. A sublime piece of acting from Hayworth that manages to suggest all at once that Elsa’s far too used to being hit and controlling herself when it happens, and also the shock, not entirely disagreeable, of experiencing the real sensation, and then the equal shock of recognition: Michael’s fear. Even when exposed as a scheming murderer Elsa retains a flailing, almost pathetic quality, canary in a gilded cage trying to reinvent herself as a condor, making a hash of schemes to liberate herself. Except that everything goes awry and she has to use Michael as a fall guy.

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Writing about any Welles film is hard and The Lady From Shanghai amongst the most challenging simply in the lure to muse on the visual textures, the cavalcade of astounding and evocative shots, achieved here in collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr with uncredited work by Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker. Welles’ desire to break away from studio simulacra saw him shoot much of the film on location with a palpable sense of place, although the result was hardly a neorealist work, the seedy glamour of the Mexican locales and the San Francisco waterfront and Chinatown instead charged with a sarcastic sense of their exoticism, albeit with the sense of strangeness inverted, such places charged with life and energy which the visiting representatives of the high life despoil. The elegance of Welles’ first two films even in their radicalisms, and the relatively prosaic grammar of The Stranger, gave way here to the vertiginous affect that would mark the rest of Welles’ oeuvre, the driving pace of editing matched to visuals that come on often with discursive jaggedness. Shots like the dollying camera tracking Hayworth as she runs, clad in swimming white, down an Acapulco street with archways and pillars breaking the shot into segments of lush yet elusive romantic fantasia.

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Or the shot of Michael and Grisby standing on a cliff edge, framed from overhead, distorting all sense of geography so that when Grisby says, “So long, fella!” and steps out of frame for a second it seems he’s jumped into the void only to leave the startled Michael as the one hovering on the edge. Moments like these only represent a fraction of the cinematic creativity on display. The sight of Elsa running away from dinner with Bannister to meet Michael in the gritty Acapulco streets sees her briefly as an illuminated figure in a special effects shot, hovering in luminosity over the dark town, a shot reminiscent of images in The Red Shoes (1948) the following year, another film meditating on the figure of the mogul as cruel magician. Their stroll through the streets together sees them passing by boles of local nightlife, cellars and taverns crammed with fervent existence even as the interloping gringos find no refuge: Michael, teased by the pursuing Broome, knocks him out, only for Goldie to turn up later with some cops hoisting Broome’s unconscious bulk demanding to know who he is. “What’s the Spanish for ‘drunken bum’?” Goldie requests in gleeful derision.

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Welles steadily builds a feeling of dizzied, intoxicated intensity often by framing the actors at great heights or having them move in reeling, criss-crossing lines in ways the pervert geographical reckoning. He combines the two as Michael has his fateful talk with Grisby. The duo climb on the heights above Acapulco, intersecting with other examples of economic exchange, like the gigolo reassuring his lady, as Grisby courts Michael for a different kind of service rendered. Welles plays an extended game with acts of seeing, through lenses, windows, and most famously in the climax, mirrors. Grisby watches Elsa through a telescope, the visuals becoming a succession of magazine-like poses, and then later on the rest of the party, rendering them specimen-like in their varying characters. The aquarium windows invert the specimen spectacle. The politics of seeing are correlated with evaluation and possession but ultimately feed back into the labyrinthine self as the funhouse mirrors rend and smear form and identity and fracture personas.

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The beach party scene is one of Welles’ most amazing sequences, a revisit to the laboriously extravagant picnic scene depicted in Citizen Kane but again invested with a more specific and vivid realisation. A grand exercise in high living curdles into a dank, tragicomic voyage into the heart of darkness – Welles’ faint revenge for his failure to film Conrad – as the picnickers canoe up tropical rivers and set up on a sunset beach with roving mariachi bands, torch-wielding partyers, and frolicking children, where the objects of rent-a-crowd exaltation sit in the fire-lit dusk and insult each-other with vicious art. Montage matches the picnickers with their animal totems amidst the sliding, flapping, squawking swamp creatures. Michael’s story conjures a whole squirming ocean full of blood and teeth even as the falling sun behind him seems to promise tropical peace. He delivers the punchline – “I never saw anything worse, until this little picnic tonight,” only for Bannister goes one better as he notes for Grisby’s benefit, “That’s the first anyone’s ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer you’d be flattered.” Bannister’s a good enough lawyer to turn his foe’s attack into his own.

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The Circe’s return to San Francisco sees Michael giving in to Grisby’s offer, hoping to entice Elsa away from Bannister with a safety cushion of cash, only for Grisby’s genuine and properly dead body to be found and Michael put on trial with his bogus confession taken for the real deal, with Bannister taking on his defence nominally to not make him seem a martyr for Elsa’s sake. Occasionally, as in Citizen Kane, Welles privileges the viewer to knowledge that he denies his nominal storyteller, most crucially when Grisby shoots Broome, who confronted him over his machinations, shortly before his own death, and conversations between Broome and Bannister establishing that both seem to be aware of a plot against Bannister’s life. Broome, seemingly a crass and threatening figure at first, proves one of the few decently motivated characters as hired watchdog who struggles even as he bleeds to death to warn Elsa and Michael against impending wheels of fate. Grisby, by contrast, with his perversions of elocution and bulging eyes set in a perpetually sweat-seeping face, seems a ridiculous figure, and whilst he really is a ridiculous figure, he’s also playing for high stakes, Elsa’s confederate in an attempt to bump off Bannister that goes awry and demands Michael go through with his role as killer. Grisby leaves Michael to go through the prearranged motions whilst heading out to the Circe, firing off a gun and attracting the attention of a horde of dancers in a waterfront tavern.

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The trial sequence is another tour-de-force of restless visual energy and satiric gall as Welles makes a mockery of justice processes in a way that again feels fascinatingly prognosticative in a different way, here anticipating the age when celebrity culture and law would become tightly entwined in acts of mass-media theatre. Bannister turns proceedings into a vaudeville routine as he affects to interview himself on the witness stand. Jurors sneeze heartily during testimony, onlookers gawk with vicarious hungers to be sated, and the prosecutor (Carl Frank) means to oblige them by forcefully attempting to brand Elsa star in a pornographic cornucopia. The closer the camera gets to Elsa’s face as the prosecutor’s questions become increasingly ruthless sees her threatening to lose substance altogether, to dissolve into a frieze of lacquered beauty, unable to play the roles required either by self-protecting social function or natural empathy – Elsa no longer atom bomb personified by the first computer, crashing from colliding streams of information and incapacity to resolve the outcome. Bannister’s sadistic intention to sabotage Michael’s defence despite knowing well he’s innocent instead fulfils the game they’ve been engaged in since the beginning, Bannister’s urgent and ultimately self-destructive need to annihilate the man who represents all the things he isn’t, having purposefully brought Michael into his fold to inhabit the role he cannot and then destroy him. Nothing sharpens the mind like the thought of being hung in the morning, as they say, and Michael learns the truth of this as imminent condemning finally grants him wisdom.

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Michael’s escape from the court house blends clammy desperation and ridiculousness as Michael sucks down a handful of Bannister’s medication, giving him a chance to escape by beating up a couple of court cops in the overseeing Judge’s (Erskine Sanford) office, trashing it in the process. The fight is offered as a miniaturised synopsis of the threatened apocalypse, civilisation crashing to bits much to the Judge’s horror complete with his neatly ordered chess pieces sent flying – Napoleon’s bust sits silently as a cop’s head crashes back against a pane of glass, shelves filled with law tomes it toppled as a weapon – before Michael escapes the building by joining a flock of jurors from another trial and the Judge is left to demand a full report from an unconscious man. The sickly humour that pervades The Lady From Shanghai also makes sport of the nominal conjuring of exotic mystery in the title, inverting the emphasis of Josef von Sternberg’s equally baroque but more wilfully fantastical entrances into Chinoiserie dreaming in the likes of Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941): even as Welles depicts a descent into delirium he relentlessly demystifies, hunting the sawdust behind the tinsel. The glimpse of two Chinese-American teens at the trial, exchanging comments in Mandarin before one of them exclaims in ripe Californian, “You ain’t kiddin’!” Michael fleeing to take refuge in a Chinese opera house in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to fall into the hands of Elsa and her underworld contacts contrasts the impenetrable stylisation of the art form with the studied blandness of its audience, the gateway to the last act in the equally impenetrable drama, like the opera full of signs and symbols Michael cannot read.

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The legendary climax confirms the correlation between show business and brutal crime, if in the most outlandish dimensions, Michael’s bemoaning that either the world or he is insane gaining a grotesque mimesis as he awakens in a funfair crazy house. Mirrors reshape him, Caligari geometry maps out his confusion, slippery slides deliver him into the maw of a papier-mache dragon and dump him out on a set that looks like a Miro painting: somehow Welles manages to cram the entire experience of modern art as a response to the opening fields of the absurd in the first half of the 20th century whilst also suggesting the carnival got there long beforehand. Painted slogans – STAND UP OR GIVE UP – both demand his action and mock his powerlessness. Elsa’s torch picks him out and she draws him into a hall of mirrors where her lovely simulacra are infinite, still protesting “I love you” even in mutual awareness she was willing to sacrifice him. Bannister’s arrival, given the last necessary jab of jealousy, sees him and Elsa annihilate each-other in a fusillade of bullets.

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This shoot-out, a brief spasm of total chaos, has long since been installed as a classic cinematic moment, and films as diverse as Enter The Dragon (1973) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) have taken it as a touchstone. But few imitators have tried to match the specific visual effect Welles manages, his subdivided frames and huge images of Elsa’s ghostly face compared to Bannister’s sharp, scuttling form, amounting to a surrealist study of psychological space. The obsessive clawing at the game of surfaces can only end this way, only to find nothing left once Elsa and Bannister’s bullets crack glass and break bodies. The destruction of all illusory selves is enacted, Bannister’s belief that killing Elsa is killing himself literalised. Michael’s passivity even in the face of this grim corrida nonetheless give him the key to his real problem, to deal with his existential crisis, responding to Elsa’s nihilistic credo that “We can’t win” means “We can’t lose, either – only if we quit.” The Lady From Shanghai is, ultimately, the story of Michael’s rebirth, even as he ruefully walks away confident of being proved innocent – “But that’s a mighty big word, innocent. Stupid’s more like it.” – and knows how deep the barbs of the Elsa illusion remain stuck in his sinews. Nonetheless the irony of Michael’s basic conclusion, his rediscovery of a form of faith in confronting the void and gaining the realisation that any individual has the power of a god in terms of their own specific world but their fate would depend on how they utilise that knowledge, and that only the storyteller can properly impose meaning to life, would become the essential theme for the rest of Welles’ career. But Elsa supplies the proper trash-poetic benediction for those who can’t face such a choice: “Give my love to the sunrise.”

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1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Erotic, Fantasy, French cinema, Romance

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Histoire Immortelle

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

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Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

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One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

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From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

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The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

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Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

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Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

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Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

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Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

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One defining characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works was his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

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The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a style etched in the stern, textured yet authoritative monochrome. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dreamscapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

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Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

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It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

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And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

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Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

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Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Experimental, Exploitation

Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)

aka Souls for Sale ; Evils of Chinatown

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Director: Albert Zugsmith

By Roderick Heath

Albert Zugsmith was one of those characters who make cinema history much livelier. Like Samuel Fuller, with whom he shared many artistic traits, he was a former journalist with a political backgroud—his sister was an author of “proletarian” novels in the 1930s—but had also spent time working as a lawyer, during which he represented Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster in their suits against DC Comics over Superman profits. He evolved into a maverick cinematic entrepreneur, landing a job high in the ranks of Universal Studios. He gave Orson Welles his last Hollywood project, 1958’s Touch of Evil, and produced several films for Douglas Sirk before striking out as an independent filmmaker as studio Hollywood began to decline on the cusp of the 1960s. The films Zugsmith produced or directed are a series of startling switchbacks in style and ambition, including the teen exploitation flick High School Confidential (1958), the camp satire Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), and the failed Disney-imi Dondi (1961).

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Zugsmith also tried to cash in on the early tremors of the counterculture and managed to beat Jack Kerouac to copyrighting the phrase “Beat Generation” for his 1959 film of that name. Zugsmith’s best film took its title and essential mood from the infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of English essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey. At the start of the 19th century, De Quincey wrote about his drug-state visions, and became perhaps the first legitimate psychedelic artist. Zugsmith’s film is not an adaptation, but a kind of purple-poetic fever dream spliced with a swashbuckling noir tale, infused with morbid, semi-tragic pseudo-philosophical discursions and a delight in pounding into unexplored territory, all worthy of a high Romantic artist. Filming on an evidently very low budget, rather than trying to hide that fact, Zugsmith made the mixture of thrift-store hype and underground film invention part of his film’s uniquely woozy texture, and created the world’s first cheapjack pulp-surrealist masterpiece.

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Confessions of an Opium Eater anticipated not only the trippier excesses of ’60s cinema, but also elements of later action cinema and modern pulp revivalism, including the directly influenced Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and other East-meets-West remixes. It also represents a weird and fascinating islet of virtually experimental cinema in the context of B-movie thrills, rampantly assaulting settled mores of both art and culture in a violently deconstructive fashion. Vincent Price plays Gilbert De Quincey, supposedly a descendant of Thomas and following in his existential footsteps, an adventurer and occasional opium fiend who washes up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1902. In a lengthy prologue, his voiceover helps weave a fantasy texture as a gang of tough-looking men on a beachfront discover a rotting skeleton wrapped in seaweed, one eye gazing out malevolently, whilst out at sea a boatload of captive Asian women are being transported to the shores of America on a huge junk.

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The women are hauled out of the hold, and the crewmen herd, batter, wrestle, and hurl the girls into a great cargo net to get them off the ship and onto a waiting schooner before a Coast Guard cutter reaches them. When the schooner’s crew bring them on the beach, the waiting men prove to be rescuers who try to overcome the slavers. One of them, who is revealed later to be crusading newspaper editor George Wah (Richard Loo), engages in a battle with one of the pirates who threatens one of the girls, Lotus (June Kyoto Lu, credited as June Kim). George is knocked down by his opponent, but the pirate is suddenly attacked by a panicked white horse, which kicks him over a cliff. Some of the pirates’ confederates arrive in a car and quell the battle with a blast from a tommy gun. The drag away Lotus from Wah’s crumpled body.

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The images of death, the exotic ship emerging from the mystic ocean as reported through De Quincey’s eyes (“I see a junk…”), and the metaphysical image of good easily recognised in the white horse immediately establish a mood of dreamlike strangeness and symbolic fervidness. De Quincey enters the story in downtown San Francisco, mulling over his own aimlessness, as a seagull portentously drops dead at his feet. He has to sneak into Chinatown, which the police have cordoned off because of the threat of tong wars. There he encounters the shadowy factions vying for power in the Chinese community, with Ching Foon (Philip Ahn) seemingly among those trying to continue the crusade of George Wah to end the sexual slavery in Chinatown run by mysterious, ancient kingpin Lin Tang. On the opposing team is ravishing femme fatale Ruby Low (Linda Ho), Lin Tang’s senior madam and operational chief, who runs the labyrinthine demimonde. Breaking into Wah’s offices, he discovers Ching Foon is hiding Lotus in a secret room, but Lin Tang’s tong goons bust their way in and force them to flee via a secret elevator that takes them into the sewers. There, after a valiant effort, De Quincey is knocked out, and Lotus spirited away by the slavers.

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Awakening deep in the bowels of the underworld, De Quincey encounters Lo Tsen (Caroline Kido), and the midget Child (Yvonne Moray), two women who were once sold in Lin Tang’s flesh market. Now they’re imprisoned in bamboo cages, being starved to death to rid their husbands of their inconvenient persons after they’ve proven too encumbering or problematic. De Quincey and the women try to escape, but that proves a very tall order. Zugsmith’s mise-en-scène, conjured with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who did similarly great work for Fuller and Robert Aldrich, is at once solid and stripped-down in a fashion familiar from low-budget cinema of the era. Yet it is replete with swiftly glimpsed, oddly elusive images and stylised environs: riddling secret passages, characters who vanish and return, people who seem to switch sides and back again with swiftly adopted and swapped identities, glimpses of corpses, drug-dream visions, inanimate objects filmed as if they’re alive and menacing. Most clever are the ghostly mechanisms of the crane system that the slave girls’ cages slide about on that sees their captives whipped from room to room, sliding unexpectedly out of shadows like spectral emanations.

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The effects are often ropy, from the camera speed effects used to give action more pep throughout, to the mid-film surrealist dream where distorted faces and stock footage commingle to wonderfully tacky effect, yet it’s precisely the film’s bald-faced lack of hype that’s part of its unique style. For example, early in the film, De Quincey follows Ruby Lo out onto the street, only for a banner to drop unexpectedly into the frame, signalling the eruption of a tong battle. The soundtrack is filled with the screams of women and children and the rattle of machine guns, and Ruby Lo dashes into a doorway, only for a sliding panel to drop, stopping De Quincey from following and leaving him outside on the completely deserted streets. Trying to break into Wah’s office, he’s assailed by a suddenly looming vision of a dragon’s face, which proves to be only a menacing kite, which he then cleverly uses to hitch a rope to the roof so he can penetrate the building.

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Whilst its fleshy texture is clearly compiled from generations of trash sources, Confessions has a tone quite unlike anything before, save for the strangest works of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, and little since. De Quincey is a strange and uncommon kind of movie hero, constantly thwarted in his attempts to escape and rescue the captive women. An adventurer who’s scoured the world in search of his destiny, beset by an awareness of his own rootless alienation, he’s a fan of the opium pipe, and gains initial introduction to Ruby Lo because he sports the tattoo by which fans of the drug recognise each other. De Quincey’s literal act of infiltrating Chinatown immediately plunges him into a serpentine jumble of motivations and mysteries, as nobody’s quite sure who’s on what side of the coin, and indeed the notion that there is no coin lingers threateningly.

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Wah, the liberal hero of Chinatown, so famous that even Lotus had heard of him back in China, is the film’s yardstick of decency and upright morality, and yet he’s believed dead. Everyone else is improvising. The falling bird at the start is definitely the albatross around the neck of the doomed mariner, as he encounters his idol/enemy/lover/angel of death Ruby, who likewise sees in him a personification of something ecstatic and annihilating. Hilariously, at one point when Ruby has De Quincey bound in her apartment, and comes on to him in a lengthy scene where the camera only studies her sensually rapacious features, she kisses him and it seems that they’re about to consummate their forbidden passion. However, they’re both wily survivors, and when De Quincey grabs Ruby’s hair to try to manhandle her, she promptly bashes him unconscious.

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The screenplay’s flagrantly weird twists and turns are in accord with screenwriter Robert Hill’s dialogue, a free-styling mix of fortune cookie Orientalisms, philosophy, and hard-boiled noir quips. When De Quincey awakens hanging from a hook in a room filled with exotic costumes and he complains he’s not a side of beef, Ching Foon retorts, “Not sure if you side of beef or a side of man. Look like you man of many sides!” Gilbert De Quincey’s peculiar wandering character and his deep knowledge of Chinese culture mixed with an age of Yankee sarcasm is an interesting prefiguration of a contemporary multicultural ideal, the Indiana Jones type of globetrotting buccaneer who also would cross cultural barriers, and a kind of prototypical hipster in search of experiences beyond not just the ordinary, but perspective-altering, life-changing, perhaps even life-ending. It feels as if Zugsmith was aware that he was making not just a period fantasia, but also a film about the nascent yearnings of the then-contemporary underworlds — the drug culture, the Beat and psychedelic scene, and the gay world, aspects of the general counterculture just about to grow in force from bohemian hideaways.

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This aspect is discernible in the importance given to the secret signs by which members recognise each other, the way portals into different realities swing open and slap shut, and how cultural tropes blend in polymorphous fashion or polarise fatally. More than a decade before Robert Towne used the word “Chinatown” to invoke everything unknowable and deceitful in the world, Zugsmith and Hill had already investigated that notion into the ground, for whilst the mystery world of Chinatown is here certainly filled with exotic threat, it’s also a place where the heroes are fighting for its soul and definition. Community is one of the film’s underlying themes, as De Quincey searches for connection with other human beings, a connection he constantly snatches at in trying to make contact with captives through bars and doors, chasing Ruby Lo, Ling Tan, and his own fate like the proverbial white rabbit.

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There are hints that Zugsmith’s work with Orson Welles laid seeds that sprout here. The seamy, multitudinous, trash-romantic universe he evokes both resembles The Lady from Shanghai (1946) and Touch of Evil in many places and anticipates Welles’ adaptation of The Trial from the following year in the paranoid atmosphere, the use of sets, lighting, and busy frames with deep-focus photography. Intentionally or not, too, the film’s ideas reach out in accord with both fellow exploit/liberate artists like Russ Meyer (with whom Zugsmith would later work on the failed Fanny Hill [1965]), and Jesus Franco, and overtly arty eccentrics like Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard. Another comparison that jumps out to me is the same year’s Dr. No, the first James Bond film, which likewise reinvented pulp and serial material in a pop-art fashion, but completely avoided this film’s self-aware, reality-bending appropriation of De Quincey’s alternative reality trippiness, so that the racist fantasies are more or less left intact. You’d have to look to much more recent crossbreeds like The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) to see the mainstream assimilation of Zugsmith’s sensibility here, in almost all characteristics—the blend of elemental action and philosophical enquiry, post-modern genre and cultural blending, dream-or-reality quandaries—but still lacking the vitality of this film’s humanism, strangeness, and eroticism.

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Speaking of eroticism, Zugsmith gains some mild grindhouse sex appeal from his material, as in the lengthy sequences towards the end in which Lin Tang’s men make their captive women dance in alluring fashion for their would-be purchasers, but yet also manages at the same time to critique this objectification. Zugsmith in Sex Kittens Go to College had cast Mamie Van Doren as a genius no one takes seriously because of her looks; here, ironies proliferate as the brutality of the kidnapped girls’ slavery is emphasised. In one gloriously camp moment that evokes Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1963), one of the audience of girl-buyers irritably tears off the wig hiding the baldness of one of the dancing girls. The sex appeal is literally pasted on to hide the de-feminising punishment doled out to the would-be escapee. Yet the whole project is orchestrated by Ruby Lo, who dresses up to play the part of Lin Tang, who died years ago, leading to the delightful image at the very end in which she tries to stamp on Gilbert’s fingers as he hangs on for dear life, lifting her masculine dress to reveal stilettoed heels. Ruby dreams of using the accumulated treasure of Lin Tang to muster an army of conquest back in China.

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De Quincey’s main helpmate is the perverted image of a courtesan imposed on the midget Child, whose own blackly comic sensibility marks her out as one of cinema’s rarest characters. Completely immune to emotional degradation or intimidation, she giggles over the most sadistic designs and sighs laughingly over her fate, having once been the real Lin Tang’s “baby doll” before he sold her to a lettuce farmer in Salinas: “I pick lettuce long time!” When Lo Tsen cries out to De Quincey from her cage for food, Child mocks her: “She crazy. They fed her last week!” And when De Quincey, trying to horsetrade with Child, offers her “her life,” she retorts, “No good. What else you got?” In a particularly nightmarish moment, Gilbert is shown the body of a girl who’s been drowned in a tank with a rock tethered to her neck. The undercurrent of honest brutality in the film helps makes the urgency of Gilbert’s mission more than theoretical. The film’s striking and memorable scene comes halfway through, when, having been separated from the women in escaping from Lin Tang’s dungeons, Gilbert hides out in an opium den to which he finds a secret door in a toilet cubical. After smoking a pipe and going into a delirious dream in which severed hands crawl around and Ruby’s face merges with that of a grinning alligator, De Quincey wakes up as enemy goons assault him.

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Replicating the hero’s dazed, drugged-up state, Zugsmith shoots the next five minutes of the film in woozy slow motion, at first without any sound. De Quincey makes an escape by leaping from bunk to bunk in the opium den, knocking over his assailants, and then hurling himself out a window, only to find he’s on a high floor, and finishes up sliding down a roof to hang desperately from a gutter. Zugsmith draws out the quickest motions to unbearable lengths (aided by composer Albert Glasser’s eerily droning Theremin music), as Gilbert wavers on the edge of a great drop, unable to got back or forward, as a hatchet-clutching henchman leaps after him from one balcony, and another with a gun lines up a shot from a distance away. De Quincey makes a leap through an awning onto an adjoining balcony and climbs through a window, only to encounter a smiling, yet creepy butcher who wields a huge cleaver to cut the head of a pig’s carcass in half.

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Gilbert runs on through the building, passing through a disarmingly quiet tea parlour and then hearing someone shouting “help!” and following the sound. The pleading voice proves to be a squawking cockatoo, which is scared off its perch as bullets smack into the wall behind it, and Gilbert is chased again by goons, driving him to take a fall off a balcony where, instead of falling normally to earth, he’s transmogrified into a spinning cut-out. When he awakens next, he gets a dish of water from Ruby right in the face (the camera), ending the dreamy state with a shock. It’s one of the most original and unique action scenes I’ve ever seen, and, in its way, as formally radical as anything being done in the era’s art cinema. Confessions vibrates with its anarchic assault on many different surface realities within its structure, building to the dizzying finale in which it is revealed that George Wah is still alive. He poses as an elderly girl-buyer and then tries to pass off plaster casts for bushels of opium in payment for buying Lotus.

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Gilbert and Wah punch their way out, back to back, like Ladd and Heflin in Shane (1953), as George congratulates De Quincey: “You wreck the joint as fast as ever!” The rush of action here is surprising, as both Lo Tsen and Child die battling their captor—Lo Tsen takes a fall with one from a high stairwell, and Child gets a knife in the back, beseeching De Quincey through the portal of a sewer grate to say hello to her ancestors—and a wounded De Quincey and Ruby are swept away in the sewer waters. De Quincey’s final voiceover, as purple as ever, is almost exultant, declaring “all passion spent, all evil behind us…as once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death, or the gates of paradise?” Like the film as a whole, these last moments are both ludicrous, yet rare in their depth of feeling.

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