Monday, March 1, 2010

#51: The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

Released: December 24, 1947

Director: Orson Welles; Screenplay: Orson Welles based on the novel “If I Die Before I Wake” by Sherwood King; Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.; Music: Heinz Roemheld; Producer: Orson Welles; Studio: Columbia Pictures

Cast: Rita Hayworth (Rita “Rosalie” Bannister), Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Erskine Sanford (Judge), Gus Schilling (“Goldie” Goldfish), Carl Frank (District Attorney Galloway), Louis Merrill (Jake), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Harry Shannon (Cab Driver)

- “Killing you, is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us...”

This placement is a real compromise, and is the result of my inability to take a definitive stand on my opinion of this film. After watching The Lady from Shanghai for the third time in preparation for the countdown, I still can’t completely decide what to make of it. I haven’t worked out whether it is a genuinely great movie, regardless of genre classification, or if it is just a passable film noir. I’m to the point now where I think that it is actually both – the high points are as impressive as anything else included in this series, while the lows reach depths that are quite low. I’ve gone round and round on this one – sometimes I feel like putting it somewhere near #30, at others #70. So I just split the difference and it lands here at #51. I’m sure that once this review is up and posted, I’ll regret it and wish that I had moved it even higher, but such is the peril of list-making…

The story behind The Lady from Shanghai is another slice of Hollywood folklore that I find so fascinating. According to the legend, Orson Welles was scrambling to come up with the necessary funds to complete his pet project of a stage adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. The story goes that while begging Columbia head Harry Cohn for the money for his own production, he promised to deliver a major film to Columbia in return for the financial help. Welles was evidently bluffing, so when Cohn immediately asked what he had in mind, Orson turned to a copy of Sherwood King’s novel that was sitting nearby. Without the slightest inkling of how it would come off, and in fact not having read it himself, Welles began singing the praises of the novel and assuring Cohn that it would make a great film. Cohn agreed, forwarded the money, and when Welles’ play flopped soon after, he was then left to deliver the promised movie. Is there any truth in this apocryphal tale? Who knows, but it’s wonderful mythology.

If a convoluted story was the sole hallmark of a great noir, then The Lady from Shanghai would be a lock for top-rank status. Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish rogue who rescues the gorgeous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from a mugging in Central Park. The two flirt a bit afterward, which to Michael is innocent enough. But a few days later he is hired by high-powered defense attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) to work as a crewman on his yacht as they sail south. Bannister is the husband of the woman he saved in the park. Michael reluctantly accepts the assignment and on the cruise he is drawn into the intrigue that swirls around everything the Bannisters are a part of. Along the way he also meets Bannister’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders), another shady character. At every turn it seems as if Michael is being offered a role in some kind of plotting or counter-plotting centering on the disabled Arthur. He initially rebuffs these offers – even from the enchanting Elsa – but eventually is swept up into a complicated plot that would take far more space to unravel in print.

Certain set pieces are so good, though, that the plot becomes inconsequential. Either you can embrace the bizarre nature of it all or you’re not likely to enjoy the film one bit. The story is strange, the visuals have a surreal, trippy quality to them, and everything seems off-kilter. Welles is talented enough as a director to make it all work. His usual inventive camera work and use of angles only adds to the bizarreness. Things like extreme close-ups – I’m thinking of the one of Grisby when he proposes the murder plot to Michael – only add to the peculiar nature of the story and its characters. And his filming of the cruise and cabana sequence is also outstanding. Rita Hayworth is also amazing as the alluring Mrs. Bannister.

The famed house of mirrors sequence is rightly celebrated, but there are other memorable scenes that I consider just as impressive. The tension that is built when Grisby is courting Michael for his plot is very well done. As is the aforementioned “tiki-bar” scene when Michael happens upon Arthur, Elsa and George lounging in cabana chairs. It is then that Michael delivers one of the great monologues of any Welles film, with the famous “Then the sharks took to eating themselves” line that foreshadows how much of the story will play out.

Even with all of these high points, it’s still hard for me to decide what to make of it all. It’s far from seamless in its narrative and some have accused the story to be labyrinthine to a fault. There are certainly sections of the film that I think are downright bad – the courtroom scene near the end is horrendous – and agree that it could have been smoothed a bit. But perhaps that’s part of the charm and goes along with the bizarre nature of the entire production. Again, I’m still trying to come to terms with it all and I've watched it numerous times!


  1. I willingly open my arms and embrace The Lady From Shanghai. I love this film and consider it one of Welles top 3 or 4 movies he directed. The bizarreness and surrealistic qualities I personally enjoy without reservations. This film epitomizes a certain strain of film noir where the plot isn't as important as the mood. It's almost like an avant-garde film from Germaine Dulac or Robert Florey with sound. The aquarium scene is also great as is Welles' weariness as he waits in the Chinese theatre. Like most men in noir he is not very bright but then again with all the double crossing going on who wouldn't get fooled. It's not as good as Touch Of Evil ( one of my ten favorite films ever) but I would have positioned this about 25 places higher. Great essay Dave and I agree that the courtroom scene is probably the weakest.......M.Roca

  2. I absolutely agree with the previous comment. It is also a favourite of mine & I am only sorry we did not get to see the movie fully realized as Welles' had envisioned it. As it is rumoured that only about have of his movie made it to the final cut. Yes it is no surprise that 'TOE' is in anybody's top ten IMHO.
    Have any of you seen the new cut of Mr Arkadin & what are your thoughts?

  3. It should be noted that Lady from Shanghai was butchered in post-production by studio hacks, so we can only wonder what it could have been.

    I find it a brilliant jigsaw of a movie. With a femme-fatale to die for, and a script so sharp and witty, you relish every scene. You can watch it again and again, and find something new each time. The long yacht voyage is used to both develop the characters and as a homage to Hayworth’s beauty and the eternal feminine in the flesh and in nature. The climactic confrontation and shootout at the end in an amusement park mirror-maze is breath-taking. It is to be savoured with patience and your full attention.

    This what authors Borde and Chaumeton said about Lady from Shanghai in their seminal 'A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953', published in France in 1955, and only translated into English in 2000:

    "The main characteristic of this confused story is an atmosphere of malaise. But [the film] is mainly impressive for its extraordinary technical mastery… when the drama begins to take shape, the virtuosity of the direction becomes perceptible: a motley assortment of mobile shots, tilted frames, unexpected framings, long circular panning or tracing shots."

    And this what 'Hard-Boiled Dick' said on my blog back in April last year:

    "If you don’t get this flick, watch it at least 10 times. Take a rest, some aspirin, a couple shots of bourbon, and then watch it again. You’ll never tire of it, if you like sharks, triple double crosses, and frenzied malaise."

  4. Thanks to the wonderful Sam Juliano, I've managed to get hold of this movie. As soon as I close the curtains on my ongoing best of 2000's project, this'll be among the first few films that I'll watch & review.

    The countdown is going great guns given that you've already reached half-way mark. All the best for the remaining 50 noirs.

  5. What a great film, one that you continue to find something new in every time you watch it. Hayworth looks gorgeous as a blonde. I’m sure most know but Woody Allen did his own homage to Welles film toward the end of Manhattan Murder Mystery.

  6. M.Roca - I'm a big fan of Touch of Evil as well, so it's not great mystery that it's going to figure into the countdown as we continue. Excellent comments here and I see that the movie has definitely clicked for you... it's almost at that point for me.

    Moremiles - Mr. Arkadin is one that I have seen, but it's been a little while and need to revisit. And I agree about this one being butchered. It's amazing how studios just sliced up everything that he did.

    Tony - Wonderful stuff and I especially love that comment from 'Hard-Boiled Dick'!

    Shubhajit - Thanks for the compliments! I'll be interested to hear how you respond to this one.

    John - Yes, this is definitely one that rewards repeat viewings, which is why I think that I might eventually regret not moving this even higher in the rankings.

  7. This is one I really love, actually. I took some shit from Greg Ferrara a while back for saying that I actually prefer it to Citizen Kane; blasphemy, I know. Tony says it perfectly: it's a "brilliant jigsaw of a movie" where the fragmentary structure and rough aesthetics (the product, certainly, of equal parts studio butchery and Welles' unusually stylized approach to sound design) add up to a weirdly compelling whole. The narrative is a shambles, of course, and there are some rough patches, but the overall mood more than makes up for any deficiencies. It's a great film. And of course the house of mirrors finale is the highlight, representing the intrusion of the avant-garde into Hollywood.

  8. Ed - Thanks for stopping by and although it hasn't yet clicked with me on the same level as you, I agree with your assessment here. The plot issues basically become inconsequential in just taking in the overall mood and atmosphere.

  9. A wonderful movie. Even though I hadn't seen it before, I instantaneously recognized it (by some serendipity or something) when I caught it by chance on a Russian TV channel (lousy translation and all). Later I bought a DVD, when it became available in Russia. We can only guess what the movie would have been like, if it hadn't been botched up by the studio... And yes, even to one who doesn't know about this film's dire fate, it's plain that something is amiss (like a whole plot line or at least several scenes in Mexico). Nevertheless, it's one of my favorites of all times. And I simply adore Orson the actor, and Rita Hayworth, too.

  10. Dave, such a great, honest post! I'm more in your camp on this one. I love Welles, even some of the ones that others consider an even bigger mess than this one. But, for some reason, SHANGHAI has always challenged me to the point of downright frustration at times. I'll continue to re-visit it as Welles is one of my favorites, but I couldn't agree more with you that this is at times a very elusive, difficult one from one of the giants.

  11. The most incompetent part of this film is the opening up to the ineptly shot and edited fight scene in the park. Once you're past that it's an effectively atmospheric film with moments of high tension and a terrific use of music throughout. Welles doesn't help himself with that brogue, but he's really not bad once the story gets going. Near the middle of a noir top 100 sounds about right to me.

  12. Quirky Character - Glad to hear that you were able to see this one and that you liked it so much... it certainly is excellent in spots.

    Jeffrey - Yes, it can be a frustrating movie, at times spectacular and at others baffling. When it's good, it's incredible. Other moments feel quite bad.

    Samuel - I agree with most everything you say on this one. About midway through the countdown feels about right, considering the way that I go back and forth on it.

  13. Rita was still married to Orson at that time!

  14. You're right, don't know what I was thinking on that one... has been fixed.