I'm in awe of Welles and all he achieved. Look, Welles at the time was already on his way out of Hollywood, and this was far from his ideal film, not a pet project. And yet you wouldn't know it from the end result which just oozes creativity. Here is genius, being able to throw yourself in the circumstances, and creative joy, working for the work itself.
But for all intents and purposes, this is simply not the film Welles conceived of and shot—that has to be one of the great lost films. Once more, the studio botched the thing, the third time for Welles at this point. It's not just that an hour is missing, but that extensive reshooting and editing has fundamentally altered the original piece. Miraculously it still works, because every studio imposed decision goes to cement the thriller, and so long as you have the girl and gun a thriller generally works.
But in feel and tone, this is a much more ordinary noir than Welles intended. And yet it's still a masterpiece.
The film is in the manner of a jazz improvisation between narrators for room in the music, and each change of narrator subtly transforms the music, and the new music mysteriously repositions the walls and and even who the viewers are. This is likely what many viewers identify as surrealism, though I find it deeper than anything conceived by that group.
First is Welles' himself - narrating when we first see him, the story as already in the past and being recalled. At some point, there's even talk of a book he's planning to write. In his story he is fascinating and desired—a fanciful storyteller trying to pass himself as a schmuck, in both senses. Of course he meets a dreamy blonde out of thin air. Of course he valiantly rescues her from crooks. The husband is anxious to hire him and not any other in a roomful of stooges.
Inbetween, we get interjections: her song and dreamy swimming, tropical animals slithering all around, all intrusions in his story of seducing the woman. All the while, you'll quite literally see the chorus change, from the roomful of sailors and later the Acapulco band in Welles' story-space, to the gossipy crowds at the docks, aquarium and court-room, to the mysterious faces in the Chinese opera.
During the Acapulco picnic, Welles silences the villains with the shark story and coolly walks away, still in control. Even the killing of the Franco spy as backstory smacks of a narrator's conceit, allowing him to portray himself as both noble and dangerous. Can you imagine the character as played by Welles having killed anyone? I could buy Bogie, Mitchum, even Gable. Not Welles, any more than Astaire. The spaces in his sailor-world? Open, seductive seas, evocative tropics.
Banning, the lawyer husband, takes over, initially through his stooge Grisby. His main centerpiece is the trial, his natural space. Here the dynamics shift to a cheaper mockery and satire—the meaningless legalistic objections, the gossipy spectators, the self- interrogation, the judge's whimsically oversized chess game, the slapstick hullabaloo of O'Hara's escape by mingling in a jury. The spaces are confined and stagy. The air stringent.
And then we wander off to her world, one of veiled Chinese intrigue and lying mirrors, both calling attention to staged image. Previously, the aquarium: dark, submerged, hushed. Once in the Chinese opera, our narrator is fully under her spell: the sleeping pills. And of course the mirrors, where discovering her deception is rendered as his stumbling through staging gear, odd architecture. Imagine! This scene was to run for 20 minutes in the original.
So wonderful overall. Welles takes the erotic thriller and turns it into layered drift through inner worlds. As characters enter his story, originally a story where he'd seduce a beautiful woman, they acquire life, dictate new spaces, change the watching chorus, creating their own currents in the story that fool with the seduction. Just beautiful.
And yet I find myself coming back to that alluring and lost original.
Welles' main intention was simple, challenge both the cinematic language and our eyes— in two ways, first a capricious self- awareness of the dark elements of noir in the sailor losing control of his story. This is preserved throughout the movie, easy to spot, its function being that Welles is fooling with what we're accustomed to take serious. The Maltese Falcon was based on this stance.
But the real loss for me is the second challenge Welles imposed, the authentic world and camera. Supposedly, the original was done in long, distanced sweeps of camera, which is completely unlike the film we have. Studio reshoots and patchy editing ruined the effect, completely altering the fabric, leaving us with some of the location work but a different feel. Oddly enough, the patchy and hyper-edited tone is not unlike Welles, though it does not show his mastery.
But I was happy that I could spot one occasion that was left intact, a simple shot from which we can somewhat reconstruct the intention: it's when Grisby approaches the yacht for the first time, Welles is at the bulwark looking out, he is standing in soft focus and very close to the camera and moves out to meet Grisby. It's all in that movement from soft focus, the creation of lived space. Epstein had been doing it before, others. But, a studio film with the visibility of Welles and Hayworth behind it would have changed cinema as much as Kane did. It'd be a different world.
Alas, we can only imagine. Amusingly, Welles' violent fistfight in the judge's rooms, another remaining instance of Welles' original plan of real impact in the eye, was kept in the film, because it's a fistfight and there the immediacy was apparently desired by the studio, still is if you look at Hollywood blockbusters..
Noir Meter: 4/4
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