Orson Welles, 1948
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane
Michael O’Hara, a sailor from Ireland, meets a beautiful blonde woman in Central Park. After he rescues her from potential robbers, she introduces herself as Elsa Bannister and offers to hire him as a sailor on her husband’s yacht when they travel from California to the Panama Canal. Her husband, the disabled Arthur Bannister, is the city’s best defense attorney and is very wealthy. Despite the fact that she’s married and has a colorful, possibly dark past, Michael falls for Elsa and signs on for the trip. During the journey, Bannister’s partner, George Grisby, attempts to hire Michael to help him fake his own death. Michael will appear to murder him, but will be found innocent by default due to the lack of a corpse. Grisby has Michael sign a confession and everything goes wrong from there – Grisby shoots a private detective on Elsa’s trail and, before Michael can put things right, Grisby is found dead along with Michael’s confession…
One of the greatest films noir and one of Orson Welles’ finest efforts, The Lady from Shanghai has a troubled, fascinating history. Welles made the film in exchange for the money to keep a theatrical production of Around the World in 80 Days afloat. Based on a novel by Sherwood King, If I Die Before I Wake, schlock-master William Castle owned the rights to the novel and intended to direct the adaptation himself – though Welles talked him into a role as only associate producer. The studio was troubled by Welles’ use of Brechtian techniques – certainly not geared toward everyday movie-goers – black comedy, unconventional editing, and strange camera-work reliant on long shots, rather than the close ups favored by all Hollywood studios.
Throughout his career, Welles struggled constantly with studio interference. The Lady from Shanghai is yet another example of this. He was devastated by the cuts to his film, particularly the ending, and the addition (in certain scenes) of a musical score. It was allegedly cut by an hour (the missing footage is considered destroyed or permanently lost) and close ups were added of Rita Hayworth. Speaking of Hayworth – Welles’ wife at the time – the studio was scandalized that Welles cut off her trademark long, red hair in exchange for a nearly white, bleached-blonde crop. He also transformed her into the ultimate femme fatale. Michael and Elsa discuss that she was born in the wickedest city in the world and it’s made clear later on that she stays with her husband because he is essentially blackmailing her to keep silent about some crime she has committed.
Elsa is the axis around which the film rotates. Welles and Hayworth were separated during production and were divorced not long after The Lady from Shanghai’s release. It’s easy to see this, in some ways, as a reflection of his feelings toward Hayworth and their marriage. Elsa – like Hayworth herself – is little more than a fantasy creature. She is statue-like, at time even apparitional, with her lovely profile and icy stare, determined inaction, and flat, unemotional register throughout the film. Elsa is presented with a past, but not a future and the exoticism of this past is part of her allure. Her connections with sex, danger, and Shanghai seem frozen in time, like Elsa herself.
Hayworth later said that men didn’t want to marry Rita, they wanted Gilda (her character from the film of the same name) or the fantasy image of her, the sexy pinup and the confident glamor girl. Tragically, she seemed to always marry men who wanted her for her image or, later, her money. Elsa is similar in some ways. Men desire her – and fall hopelessly in love – because of her glamorous image. But unlike the real-life Rita’s insecurities, Elsa is a wanton murderer, ready to seduce and frame Michael so that she can murder her husband and find emotional, physical, and financial freedom.
There are certain parallels with Double Indemnity. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, Elsa is a beautiful woman with questionable morals planning to murder her husband. And Welles’ Michael, like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, is the dope in love with her. Phyllis’ husband spends much of his screen time hobbling on crutches thanks to a broken leg, while Arthur Bannister is permanently disabled. It is likely that Welles was influenced by this highly influential noir, but he takes all of the characters several steps further – they are all more sinister, more depraved, and more surreal.
Aside from his controversial use of Hayworth, Welles cast a number of strong supporting actors from his Mercury Theater group in The Lady from Shanghai, many of whom are conduits for Welles’s sly use of black humor. Sloane (Citizen Kane) co-stars alongside Welles and Hayworth as the pathetic but devious Arthur Bannister, and William Alland (Citizen Kane), Erskine Sanford (Citizen Kane), and noir regular Ted de Corsia (The Big Combo, The Naked City) all have memorable side roles. It’s also worth mentioning that Welles cast a number of non-white actors in a time when Hollywood had some questionable racial politics. Elsa, though apparently Russian by birth, was at least for a time a Chinese citizen and is fluent in the language. When she’s in trouble, she heads to San Francisco’s Chinatown, rather than to white American friends. (There are also black maids and Mexican workers, so don’t think that the racial landscape is progressive, merely less sullied than other films of the era.)
Welles pushed to make The Lady from Shanghai one of the first major Hollywood productions shot mostly on location, including areas of Mexico and San Francisco. The Mexican shoot was apparently dangerous and the cast and crew were beset with interference from various critters, heat stroke, illnesses, and even one cameraman died of a heart attack. Welles, unusual in almost all things, also added two unnerving, dream-like sequences that are considered some of the some exemplary shots in all noir. The first is set in an aquarium, where Michael and Elsa have a love scene and kiss in the presence of school children. The fish behind them were shot to appear larger (and closer) than they really were, giving the scene a shadowy, menacing feel.
The final scene – thrilling, imaginative, and dreamlike – was Welles’ famous carnival set. He pushed the boundaries of how camerawork and editing techniques were typically used, going so far as to put a cameraman down the absurdly long slide. The funhouse was apparently inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – complete with strange angles, moving doors, the giant slide, and a room of mirrors. Welles apparently painted the entire set himself overnight. I wish the missing footage could be restored, but either way, the confrontation between Elsa, her husband, Michael, and a room of mirrors is both chilling and breathtaking.
The Lady from Shanghai remains relevant and exciting, and comes with the highest possible recommendation. It’s available on Blu-ray, though I’m hoping a superior release comes along soon. I haven’t bothered to mention Orson Welles’ performance here – or his role as writer, director, or producer – because it should be assumed that he is fantastic here, as always, and Michael might just be his most heartfelt, emotional role. Considered a failure in its time, The Lady from Shanghai is now considered a masterpiece. This revolutionary gem belongs at the top of any “to watch” list.