Reeling Backward: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Despite not wanting the job and then fighting some egregious studio hackery, Orson Welles' film noir classic is still visually and emotionally dazzling.
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“The Lady from Shanghai” is one of those movies that has been studied and written about almost continually since the day it came out (and was a critical and commercial flop). I’m surprised no one’s produced a documentary about its making, which encompasses some of Golden Age Hollywood’s greatest creative legends and autocratic missteps.
Let’s start with: Orson Welles didn’t even want to make it. He needed some money to continue a major stage musical he was producing and convinced Columbia Pictures to finance it in exchange for directing and starring in a movie. Despite his travails with the studios, including the virtual dismemberment of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” he was still a hot commodity, including the financial success of 1946’s “The Strangers.”
According to Welles’ own account, he had no film in mind. He just pitched the title of the book the box office girl happened to be reading in front of him while he was on the phone, “If I Die Before I Wake” by Raymond Sherwood King, without even knowing what it was about.
Though the then-wunderkind, playing the fatalistic Michael “Black Irish” O’Hara, a vagabond sailor who gets lured into a maelstrom of forbidden love and murder, was probably just spouting a bit of the ol’ blarney.
Welles did something unusual for that day, shooting most of the film on location including Mexico and San Francisco. He even used Errol Flynn’s personal yacht, the Zaca, for the oceanic portion of the story. The bad boy actor accompanied the crew for the shoot — probably to watch over his beloved baby — and can even be spotted in the background of a bar scene.
Despite these logistical challenges, Welles brought the production in early and under budget. But Columbia demanded major reshoots and edits, resulting in overruns and a picture very different from the one he intended. Reportedly the iconic funhouse sequence that ends the film was cut down from 20 minutes to three.
Because of this, Welles removed his name from the directing credits so he’s only listed as a producer, writer and actor, and the film officially has no director. William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle also contributed to the script, though Welles took sole credit — as was his wont.
“The Lady from Shanghai,” even its semi-butchered state, remains a visually and emotionally dazzling picture. It’s generally categorized as film noir due to its focus on crimes of passion and innovative, canted cinematography (credit to Charles Lawton Jr. but also with contributions by Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker). I’d call it more of a romantic tragedy.
It’s now out in a gorgeous Blu-ray issue from Kino Lorber, which also includes numerous commentary tracks and background material. It’s well worth adding to any serious cinephile’s collection.
It’s been on to 30 years or more since I last saw “Lady,” and I admit my memory was a bit hazy. I’d even misplaced that it was Rita Hayworth, then married to Welles but estranged, who headlines the film as the femme fatale Elsa Bannister, whom Michael nicknames “Rosalie.” Hayworth’s signature auburn waves were cruelly cropped and glitzed platinum blonde, which did not please her but resulted in one of her signature roles.
It’s an extravagantly passionate performance, and at various times we find Elsa to be tempting, pitiable and hateful. There are no spoiler warnings after 76 years, so if you’ve not seen the film you won’t be surprised to find out she’s the real villain pulling everyone’s strings.
Elsa remains a beguiling mystery to the end. She also traveled all over the globe, including lending the film its title, making vague references to being a gambler and adventurer. “One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end,” a line she quotes to Michael, seems to be her unofficial credo.
Welles caresses Michael’s Irish accent like a treasured stone he’s continually polishing, and it’s quite musical and magical to listen to. His character is a fiercely independent seamen who’s been all over the world, getting his nickname after he killed a Franco spy with his bare hands during the Spanish Civil War.
Michael also narrates the story in a sort of confessional mode, regaling the audience with tales of his foolishness in falling for Elsa. “Living on a hook takes away your appetite. You've no taste for any pleasure at all but the one that's burning in you,” is a typical example.
“Sunset Boulevard” hadn’t yet invented the trick of having a dead character narrate the movie, so we go in with the sense that Michael survives but with major scars, physical or otherwise.
After Michael saves her from some robbers in Central Park, Elsa insists he sign on as part of the crew of her husband’s yacht. It’s questionable whether this is because she’s genuinely attracted to him or sees him as a suitable chump.
Arthur Bannister (Welles favorite Everett Sloane) is reputed to be the world’s greatest criminal lawyer, one who’s never lost a case. He’s older, cynical and crippled (to use the parlance of the day), using two canes to support each leg. His crabbed, deliberate way of walking gives the sense of a man with inexorable patience.
The long ocean voyage has no real narrative point other than setting up the intrigue of this love triangle… or should I say quadrangle. Glenn Anders plays George Grisby, Arthur’s partner and just this side of a total loon. He speaks in a teasing singsong manner and it’s suggested that also is in love with Elsa, or as near to that emotion as a creature such as he is capable.
The major high point of the trip is Michael regaling his supposed betters with a story about the time he saw an entire swarm of sharks feeding upon each other, unable to control their insatiable appetite. He quips that it’s the second-worst thing he’s seen in his life, after the vicious way these wealthy do-nothings insult and attack each other for sport.
Upon returning to land — after Michael has finally surrendered to Elsa’s luring — Grisby reveals his scheme to have Michael confess to murdering him for $5,000 (about 70k today). He won’t actually kill him, but Grisby will run away to some remote island to escape the nuclear war he fears is coming. He’ll be officially dead, but Michael will get off because there’s no body to prosecute.
Of course, it’s really all a complicated flurry of cross-plots and hidden motives. Grisby actually wants to murder Bannister, who was looking to return the favor as each would collect insurance upon the other’s demise, but Elsa beats them all to the trigger.
Michael’s circus trial, with Bannister representing him, is an extended bit of comic relief, including a portion when the barrister is called to the witness stand by the D.A. and winds up cross-examining himself.
Michael, having swallowed some of Bannister’s pain pills to facilitate his escape, wanders addled through Chinatown. Elsa, holding true to her titular background, shows off her fluent Mandarin.
The final funhouse sequence is indeed quite memorable. The house of mirrors, besides being visually stunning, is an apt metaphor for the many different ways we perceive others and are perceived. Bannister and Elsa shoot each other fatally and Michael, the only one who has never pretended to be other than that which he is, escapes unharmed.
The final moments of Elsa’s life still pack a wallop. At least part of her truly felt something for Michael, and she beseeches him to return to her, if only so she can die in his arms. But Michael, despite that siren call, pulls himself out of the exit, his long sordid trip through the funhouse of manipulation finally at an end.
The production values of “Lady from Shanghai” are exquisite, including lavish costumes, cars and backdrops. Hayworth wears a daring two-piece bathing suit for much of the middle part of the movie, and I was amused by the contrast with Grisby and Bannister not even bothering to doff their coats and ties in the Caribbean heat.
We can suppose about what this movie might have been like without the studio’s interference, or just appreciate the flawed but amazing film that resulted. I choose the latter.