“I'm bored,” Orson Welles told an interviewer in 1981, “with stories that don't seem to be balanced dangerously.” He was looking back at The Lady From Shanghai, the fractured, brilliant 1948 thriller he'd made with his then-wife, Rita Hayworth, but he was also rehearsing the spin for an even more dangerously balanced new picture he was preparing to make in time for the 1984 presidential election, The Big Brass Ring. That film, unproduced at the time of Welles' death in October 1985, is currently being made with a cast that includes William Hurt, Irene Jacob, Nigel Hawthorne and Miranda Richardson. I adapted the Welles script, in collaboration with director George Hickenlooper, and from day one those words about dangerous balance were posted over my desk. At first, they formed a useful, practical yardstick in realizing this volatile man's multifaceted intentions. Over time, they've become for me the key to Welles and his legacy.
It's now a standing joke – rich with Wellesian irony – that a dozen or so years after his death, Welles is one of the busiest figures in show business. His films are still racking up accolades (note Citizen Kane at the top of the AFI list); his body of work continues to grow. In addition to The Big Brass Ring, two other unproduced scripts are going before the cameras: The Dreamers and The Cradle Will Rock, the latter directed by Tim Robbins. A version of It's All True, Welles' “lost” Brazilian documentary, emerged in 1993. Three, possibly four features he filmed and nearly completed before his death threaten to pop out of limbo: The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep, The Merchant of Venice and Don Quixote. (Knock wood, perhaps we'll see one of these before the new century turns.) Othello was restored in 1992; Chimes at Midnight (arguably his greatest film) is being restored as we speak. Touch of Evil re-emerges next month, carefully recut and remixed per the maestro's final instructions. And this week, we have a brand-new print of The Lady From Shanghai.
No one will ever argue that The Lady From Shanghai is Welles' greatest film – but among die-hard romantics it's the hands-down favorite. In the movie, little things like logic are entirely subordinated to the pursuit of unrestrained passion. Legend has it that Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn jumped yelling from his seat at the first screening and shouted: “I will give $5,000 to anybody who can tell me the plot of this goddamn thing.” Cast, crew and even Welles stared back at him in sheepish silence. And let's face it, the plot is baroque, the dizziest viper's tangle this side of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep. But in memory of those five thousand bucks, let's give it a shot.
An Irish drifter named Michael O'Hara – Welles, at his most handsome – goes wandering in New York's Central Park one night and rescues a mysterious lady from a robbery attempt. She is Elsa Bannister, played by Rita Hayworth, startlingly close-cropped and blond, wife of super-lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane, the sweet Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane, now hypnotically sour and propped on a spidery pair of steel crutches). Michael is rewarded for his heroics with a job offer – that of piloting the Bannisters' yacht around the Horn to San Francisco. Though skeptical, he accepts, and for the next several weeks navigates the shark-infested rip tides of this couple's flamboyantly dysfunctional marriage. He and Elsa commence an affair. Arthur has them followed, yet seems, perhaps as a feverish byproduct of his infirmity, to be pushing them together. By the time they reach Brazil, the nuttiest fruitcake in the entourage, Mr. Grisby (played by the splendid Glenn Anders, grinning, glad-handing and never quite looking anyone in the eye), approaches Michael with an even weirder job offer. “I want you to kill me, fella!”
Self-confessed boob that he is, Michael accepts. He wants the money so he can run away to some desert island with Elsa, and happily he doesn't need to actually kill Grisby. The plan is to fake the murder and scam a pile of insurance money. Unfortunately, as they all reach San Francisco, Grisby turns up dead for a fact, Michael is framed, and the treacheries blossom into a nightmare-comic courtroom scene in which he is ruthlessly tricked under oath by his own defense attorney – none other than the cuckolded Arthur Bannister – who, in a triumphantly insane display, calls himself to the stand as a hostile witness.
Hereabouts, you may want to wake up screaming beside Harry Cohn. Consider, though, that lucid plotting was forever beside the point for Welles, especially as he got older and grew more independent. Independent not only of Hollywood, but of his own previously classical tastes, the later Welles is always going for pure poetry, and in The Lady From Shanghai that means breathing the heady, surrealist atmosphere of tragic farce. Whatever he found in him to say to Cohn, Welles knew exactly what he was doing, and once the courtroom romp comes to its climax, he makes the story jump its tracks. There's a chase through a Chinese theater, a semihallucinated detour through an abandoned funhouse, a shootout in a hall of mirrors, and a great romantic last line: “Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying.”
Harry Cohn, not especially partial to dangerous balance, cut chunks out of the Chinese-theater scene as well as the funhouse, and ordered a studio composer to spread a thick musical schmaltz over the sinister sambas that Welles set in his preferred soundtrack. (His preview cut showed once in Santa Barbara before Cohn had it re-worked.) Yet even in its reduced, mangled form, The Lady From Shanghai has more sheer energy, more beauty, more life than films a fraction of its age. Every image is charged: Welles didn't need to be conventionally coherent to be Welles; quite fittingly he seizes each moment to its fullest in what is fundamentally a Chinese puzzle-box of a film. His interaction with both the material and his audience are such that the film not only survives its reduction at other hands, its very flaws refresh its energies, and become part of its tragic beauty.
As Goethe wrote, our lives remain of consequence not insofar as we leave something behind, but as we “act and enjoy, and rouse others to action and enjoyment.” Seven years ago, suffering over the collapse of a dangerously balanced film I'd spent a year and a half writing, I consoled myself by taking up the copy of The Big Brass Ring that had been sitting unread on my shelf. Blind chance? Psychic impulse? Considering the gigantic difference this thwarted Welles script has made in my life, given that the consequences of this involvement have now spread into the lives of the cast and crew of an actual film, one can only marvel, and feel humbled at the vastness of Orson Welles' still-expanding legacy. As the prodigy who made Citizen Kane, he remains a font of inspiration to younger artists. Godard, Truffaut, Scorsese, Lucas – name your favorite film student: All count that gorgeous tyro as the shaper of their ambitions.
Yet as one grows older, it is the heroic agony of Welles' struggle to make films beyond Kane that gives the most hope and comfort to those of us who are still struggling. And while no restoration can ever fully realize his original intentions, and no adaptation – no matter how dangerously balanced – can ever be a substitute for the films he might have made, The Lady From Shanghai offers life-giving proof that genius is less a question of intentions pristinely transmitted to posterity, than of risks taken, losses and all, in the eternity that is here and now.