by Matt Levine
The Lady from Shanghai cannot be called one of Orson Welles’ more successful pictures—once again Welles’ film was butchered by the production company, Columbia Pictures, and it’s arguable that Welles didn’t have much passion for the project to begin with—but it does stand as one of his strangest and most fascinating creations (which is saying something). A twisty, apocalyptic film noir given to fits of surrealism and screwball farce, The Lady from Shanghai seems willfully uneven, as though Welles wanted to throw everything he could at the screen to see what sticks. From its clumsy voiceover narration to Welles’ high-pitched Irish brogue to characters that are evoked through sweaty, hysterical close-ups, The Lady from Shanghai is filled with flaws and misguided choices—all of which turn the film into an outcast from bizarro Hollywood, an oddity that’s riveting to behold.
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles, Sherwood King (novel If I Die Before I Wake), William Castle (uncredited), Charles Lederer (uncredited), Fletcher Markle (uncredited)
Cinematographer: Charles Lawton Jr.
Editor: Viola Lawrence
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted De Corsia, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, Carl Frank, Louis Merrill, Evelyn Ellis
Genre: Crime/Drama/Film Noir
US Theatrical Release: June 9, 1948
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
The initiation of the project was something of a desperation move for Welles, who was at that time working on a stage adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days. When the producer pulled out, Welles found himself financing the play himself, suddenly scrounging for $55,000. He phoned Harry Cohn, president of Columbia, and pitched what would become The Lady from Shanghai. As Welles’ own account alleges, he happened to see a girl reading the source novel, If I Die Before I Wake, when he was talking to Cohn and pitched an adaptation without ever having read it; according to producer William Castle’s daughter, however, it was Castle who bought the literary rights and brought the book to Cohn’s attention. In either case, it seems like Welles had little fondness for the project to start off with, although the pulpy story, dark humor, and exotic locales (filmed on location in San Francisco and Mexico) seem tailor-made for his freewheeling style.
In many ways the story provides the usual film noir intrigue. Michael O’Hara (Welles) is an Irish sailor who, wandering around New York one night, saves the gorgeous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth, who was married to Welles during production but divorced him by the time the film was released) from a gang of thieves. He finds out that she’s married to the notoriously weaselly criminal-defense lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), but she nevertheless cajoles him to work on her husband’s yacht during their upcoming trip to San Francisco, by way of the Panama Canal. O’Hara initially refuses, understandably finding this a suspicious come-on, but before long he’s cruising on the Caribbean ogling Elsa through binoculars—if there’s ever been a Hollywood “hero” who thinks exclusively with his penis, it’s O’Hara. Arthur Bannister’s wolfish cohorts—including his partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders), whose eyes are perpetually popping out of his head; and the oily Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), a private investigator—hardly try to hide the fact that Bannister has hatched a nefarious scheme, in which O’Hara gradually realizes he’s the central pawn.
There are femme fatales, hard-boiled narration, chiaroscuro lighting, characters who shoot first and ask questions later—we’re decidedly in the realm of film noir. Even so, this is one of the most skewed and atypical film noirs ever made. For one thing, there’s the frenzied, apocalyptic tone, in which the specter of war and violence hovers over all the characters: O’Hara has just finished fighting in the Spanish Civil War, where he was nicknamed “Black Irish” for his violent proclivities. Grisby is a particularly debased character, telling O’Hara he’s “very interested in murders” before proposing a plot whereby O’Hara will kill Grisby since it’s only a matter of time until nuclear war destroys all of the world’s cities anyway. This scheme is soon revealed as a ruse, but regardless there’s a sense that the villainy and rapaciousness of these men is simply a microcosm for what’s going on in the world at large, where war seems to be spreading like wildfire. This dour worldview is voiced by O’Hara when he tells his employers a parable about a school of sharks who, incited by bloodlust, kill each other and then start eating themselves: “You could feel the lust of murder,” O’Hara says, “like a wind stinging your eyes.” The Lady from Shanghai often comes off as scattershot and playful, but it has a dark, existential undercurrent that also cropped up in Welles’ previous The Stranger (also a victim of studio “revisions”). Following World War II and the Holocaust (which Welles said gave rise to “the putrefaction of the human soul”), the barbarism of which man is capable was certainly on the director’s mind.
On the other hand, and seemingly paradoxically, The Lady from Shanghai indulges an energetic, farcical tone. This is seen in the character of Grisby, a man who epitomizes the adjective “cartoonish”: slathered in sweat, eyes bugging out, speaking in a nasally, half-restrained shriek, Grisby makes Snidely Whiplash look taciturn by comparison—a hyperbolic depiction aided by the extreme close-ups in which Grisby is often seen. One scene depicts a grim, vindictive conversation between Elsa and her husband while Grisby plinks on a piano and (poorly) sings a love song—an aptly befuddling example of the movie’s grim-and-goofy vibe. Later, in a long courtroom scene that Harry Cohn reportedly despised, a pair of nattering old ladies in the crowd tip the scales to comedy, and although the jokes aren’t particularly funny this sudden U-turn into farce does make a potentially boring scene weirdly fascinating. Indeed, much of the film seems like Welles’ private experiment: how to amuse himself while laboring over a project he wasn’t exactly drawn to. The doomsday subtext and indulgence in comedy seem like attempts to inject Welles’ personality into a fairly rote, director-for-hire assignment (especially considering he also wrote the screenplay).
The most overt example of Welles’ artistry, however, is (unsurprisingly) the film’s visual form. Working with Columbia stock cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. (with uncredited assistance from Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker, photographers of The Passion of Joan of Arc and It’s a Wonderful Life, respectively), Welles again uses the whole arsenal of cinematic tricks: deep-focus, harsh high-contrast lighting, circular irises, various aspect ratios, superimposition, rear-projection, and so on. The most famous example is the climactic house-of-mirrors scene, clearly modeled after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which Welles had originally plotted as a meticulous twenty-minute sequence; after being reedited by Columbia, it’s now less than five. Regardless, it’s astonishing to watch: the screen fractures into narrow sections, the camera itself seems to crack, faces are superimposed, visual space itself becomes indeterminable. It’s a rightfully celebrated ending (who knows how incredible it could have been in its original form), but it’s not even my favorite visual moment in the movie. That arrives during a rendezvous at the San Francisco aquarium, where Michael and Elsa speak in front of a tank that appears to house the most hideous aquatic creatures known to man. The image was achieved by projecting aquatic footage on a screen behind the characters, and the effect is nightmarish, one of the most surreal moments in any Hollywood film. At one point, ravishing Rita Hayworth speaks on the right side of the screen while a monstrous moray eel lurks to the left—as jarring a conflation of sex and horror as you can find in the movies.
Appraising The Lady from Shanghai requires a set of qualifications familiar from Welles’ other movies: who knows how masterful the film would have been in the director’s original vision? The first rough cut was 155 minutes, though Harry Cohn required a litany of reshoots that took almost a year, then mandated extensive edits that eliminated about an hour of Welles’ footage. He also appended a musical score from Columbia composer Heinz Roemheld that (as Welles railed at the time) is truly awful. Those who claim Welles’ unreliability doomed him in Hollywood seem to forget that, with The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai, he toed the company line and brought his films in on schedule and under budget; they were only delayed and the costs escalated due to studio-mandated retooling. It might be even harder to envision the two-and-a-half-hour version of The Lady from Shanghai, with its jarring contradictions in tone, than the uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons (which isn’t to say the crime is any more egregious). Obviously the uneven, abrupt pacing of The Lady from Shanghai—not to mention the clumsy voiceover at the beginning and end of the film—has a lot to do with the recuts demanded by Columbia.
But the fractured, unpredictable nature of The Lady from Shanghai is ultimately its most astounding quality: this is quite simply one of the strangest Hollywood movies of the ‘40s, a fascinating set of quirks and contradictions. Even Columbia couldn’t suppress the volatile personality that Welles was able to inject into the film, a visually ravishing conundrum that’s as funny as it is apocalyptic. (In one characteristically odd interaction, Elsa asks Michael, “Would you kill yourself if you had to?” He replies, in a ponderous tone as comedic as it is frightening: “I don’t know.”) This is what makes critical reaction to Welles’ career so impassioned, and what makes revisiting his films so rewarding: objectively speaking, any critic would have to admit that Citizen Kane is his best (most important, most groundbreaking) movie, but as far as subjective favorites go, pretty much any of Welles’ films provide fascinating marvels worth championing. In my corner, I’ll posit The Lady from Shanghai and The Trial (1962) as my own favorites—inexhaustible, bizarre creations that reveal Welles’ talent for putting himself (his ideas, his vitality) onscreen.