“I climbed onto the raft and reached down for her. She put one hand on my wrist and the other on my shoulder and came up easily, laughing. At the top she slipped and held on close. A shiver went through her. I put my hand on her back to steady her and felt her hair like dark seaweed in my face.”
Sherwood King’s (1904-1981) novel If I Die Before I Wake serves as the basis of the Orson Welles film Lady of Shanghai. If you’ve seen the film, then you know that it’s not without its problems, and if you read about the making of the film, you’ll discover that the director (Welles) and the star (Rita Hayworth) were in the throes of a marriage breakup during the filming, and a fair amount of the film’s problems are thrown onto the domestic difficulties of this famous couple. The film, cut substantially before its release, was considered one of Welles’ worst failures, and it’s a film that divides his critics from his fans. So this brings me to the book on which the film is based: If I Die Before I Wake. What a great title, and take a look at that cover:
And here’s how this tale begins:
“Sure,” I said. “I would commit murder. If I had to, of course, or if it was worth my while.”
I said this as though I meant it too. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it at all.
“The way I figure it,” I said, “a man’s got to die some time. All murder does is hurry it up. What more is there to it?”
You know–talk. What any young fellow might say, just to show he’s not afraid of anything.
There had been a murder out our way. On Long Island. Some society woman had shot her husband. He hadn’t been doing anything, just raiding the icebox for a midnight snack. But (she said) she’d thought he was a burglar … five bullets’ worth. Police were holding her; some insurance angle.
This strong beginning comes from the narrator–a young, well-built ex-sailor, Laurence Planter, a drifter who seemed to hit a lucky streak when he swam onto a private beach belonging to wealthy middle-aged attorney, Bannister. Bannister seems to have a lot: a beautiful red-headed, sexy young wife, Elsa, a lucrative practice, and a fabulous home near the beach, but Bannister is permanently disfigured from war injuries. These are physical scars, of course, but he’s also dismal, “bitter and a little screwy” about his limitations. When Laurence turns up on the beach, Bannister hires him on the spot as a chauffeur, and Laurence, broke and unemployed, takes the job, living in a small room above the Bannister’s garage.
Laurence hasn’t been there long when he’s approached by Grisby, a sleazy, fast-talking character who happens to be Bannister’s law-partner. Seems that Grisby is unhappily married, and wants a divorce, so he’s dreamed up a scheme in which Laurence is supposed to murder Grisby, so that Grisby can escape from a marriage he can’t stand. Laurence will get $5,000 for his trouble and Grisby will collect the insurance money that will fund a new life in the South Seas. According to Grisby, it’s a foolproof plan:
You know they talk about the perfect crime. There’s some defect in all of them. Ours will be the perfect crime, perfectly executed. And the first essential is that I be killed, the second that you be in a position to prove you killed me.
The plan stinks, and so obviously full of holes, that Laurence, even though he can almost taste that 5,000, balks at the idea. Grisby assures Laurence that this will be “the perfect crime;” he won’t be convicted and fry for the ‘murder’ as there won’t be a body.
Suppose they put you in jail for a while, or even the psychopathic ward, if they thought you were nuts, what of it? Let ’em. Any dumb lawyer could get you out, if they don’t even have a body–and they won’t have. I’ll see to that. Besides, what’s a little time in jail compared to five thousand waiting for you when you get out?
With Grisby’s goading, Laurence agrees to the plan–even though it makes little sense to Laurence (or to the reader). Laurence begins asking questions, and then when he finally puts the brakes on and demands to know what Grisby is holding back, Grisby claims this was “just a test” before he revealed the real plan. The “real” plan is even worse than the first plan, but Laurence foolishly agrees and soon finds himself facing a murder rap.
A million things could go wrong: Laurence could be beaten or sent to the psycho ward for years, and what good is 5,000 going to be except to hire an expensive lawyer to fight your case? Grisby’s plot is overly convoluted and hard to swallow, and it only works if Laurence is a complete idiot–which, it turns out, he is. There’s a double cross, a triple cross and a quadruple cross before this tale of lust and greed is over. If I Die Before I Wake is a fast-paced read and written in a tough, terse style. After reading this, now the problems of The Lady of Shanghai begin to make a lot more sense….
There’s a story behind the story of The Lady of Shanghai. According to Welles, he was in Boston working on a stage production of Around the World in 80 Days. Welles states they “were unable to get the costumes from the station because $50,000 was due and our producer Mr. Todd had gone broke.” Welles, using a pay phone called Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures and desperate for cash, he improvised:
“I have a great story for you if you could send me $50,000 by telegram in one hour. I’ll sign a contract to make it.” “What story?” Cohn said. I was calling from a pay phone, and next to it was a display of paperbacks and I gave him the title of one of them, Lady from Shanghai. I said, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later, we got the money. (from This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich)*
Naturally since Welles grabbed the book without reading it, he was unaware of the convoluted, problematic plot. Incidentally, William Castle already owned the rights to the book, so he served as associate producer to the film which, made by pure chance, made film noir history. Orson Welles, who’d intended to make a film that felt like an “off-kilter” bad dream found that the nightmare was his own, and after seeing the edited version of the film, he sent a nine page memo with various suggestions to Harry Cohn, but all of his arguments were ignored. No wonder Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures offered to pay a thousand dollars to anyone in the viewing room who could explain the plot of The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles: Interviews with Filmmakers, Ed. Mark W. Estrin . Cohn should have read the book, and if he did he’d understand that Welles’ created a difficult, brilliant interpretation of the troublesome raw material.
*There are a couple of different versions about how the book If I Die Before I Wake came to be made into a film, so the source is included.