The cinema of Orson Welles is defined by compromise — by funding lost, control wrested away, footage excised and eradicated.
With his debut film, Welles enjoyed unprecedented freedom and authority; his final one has languished uncompleted and unseen for nearly 40 years, embroiled to this day in legal controversy. History portrays his narrative as a strong man’s grip gradually loosening.
What ought to be remembered, and what’s so extraordinary, is that the greatness of his art has survived these concessions: His films endure even as fragments of their author’s original vision, from the incomplete historical sweep of The Magnificent Ambersons (a masterpiece undiminished by its studio-mandated elisions) to the maimed and malformed Touch of Evil (assembled posthumously, and imprecisely, under guidance of the director’s memoranda).
The Lady From Shanghai remains another unique case. The cuts and revisions to which it was unceremoniously subjected by Harry Cohn, then president of Columbia Pictures, are among the most extensive ever dealt to a Welles picture, and it is a tragedy of cinema that the material expunged will never be recovered.
And yet, for all the violations it suffered, The Lady From Shanghai seems strangely coherent in its extant form — or rather, coherently incoherent, and in a way that seems quite deliberate.
Central to the appeal of the film is the sensation of unease, of anxiety and dread, it so effortlessly conjures. Indeed, it suggests noir’s extreme: convolution pushed into abstraction, a plot so sinister it is impossible to comprehend.