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Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai has been kicked around in film debates since not long after it was first released. Cited by studio wags as a prime example of why the talented powerhouse should be banned from the industry, the film is as brilliant as it is frustrating. A lot of the frustrating part surely comes via studio (Harry Cohn's) interference, or should we say, punitive vengeance. Mogul Cohn would claim that Welles double-crossed him by spoiling Columbia's top sex symbol Rita Hayworth's appearance, doing irreparable harm to "Gilda" by cropping her hair and dyeing it blond. Welles would quietly ask why his film was taken away, re-cut with added retakes by others, and his notes for the music scoring completely ignored.
Mr. Welles seems to have been incapable of making a dull movie, and The Lady from Shanghai is a fascinating work of art. A romantic/hardboiled film noir directed with a whirl of dynamic visual flourishes, its innovative technique frequently verges on the experimental. Despite the studio's re-cut, most scenes communicate intense moods and bizarre extremes of character. Justly famed surreal set pieces express the dark psychological forces churning below every character confrontation. Welles' later Touch of Evil is a nightmare of corruption, while Shanghai is a crazy house of greedy schemes gone mad.
Rootless merchant seaman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) rescues a mysterious beauty (Rita Hayworth) in Central Park. A day or so later, the famous, handicapped San Francisco attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) hires Michael as a crewmember for his yacht. It's at the request of his wife Elsa, Michael's 'mysterious lady'. Michael signs on anyway. En route to the Caribbean he must put up with insinuations from Arthur's associate Sid Broome (Ted de Corsia) and business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders, who should have been nominated for an Oscar). Their taunts and Arthur's impotent insults drive Elsa and Michael together, and by the time they've reached Acapulco, everyone knows they are an item. Michael is tempted when Grisby asks him for help in faking his death for insurance purposes. The $5,000 offered would allow Michael and Elsa to run away together. No sooner does the yacht reach San Francisco than the whole setup explodes in murder plots and counter-murder plots, all of which point to Michael as the prize all-time fall guy.
Just about the only film fans that dislike Lady from Shanghai are people that harbor reservations about Orson Welles' lead performance. In 1946 Welles was beginning to gain weight but was still a potential candidate for romantic leads. He's always on screen and narrates the picture, so if his presence grates there's not much more to be said. Frankly, any mortal that married Rita Hayworth and was the lover of Dolores Del Rio can't have been too much of a slacker. Michael O'Hara is introduced in a fairly weak scene 'heroically' rescuing Elsa Bannister from some thugs. From that point forward he's a prime Noir Loser, a self-appraised sap who (sigh) just can't say no to the ravishing blond at the center of a pack of shark-men intent on eating each other up. Michael's little parable about self-destructive sharks is the film's overall opinion of mankind. Welles integrates this theme so smoothly that a later visit to an aquarium is an artful echo, with superimposed fish seemingly feeding off an image of Elsa. References to an atomic apocalypse chime in with the same idea. Welles' narration talks about a "bright, guilty world" but it also seems perilously unstable, a key preoccupation of film noir. Superior storytelling puts across themes that would be pretentious in most any other context.
If this were a standard "femme fatale vs. noir loser" tale, the suspense would revolve around when the cuckolded Arthur finds out that he's been cuckolded. That's a foregone conclusion here, as the romantic triangle is just the first of a number of plots and schemes, some of which are con jobs. If you haven't already seen The Lady from Shanghai my advice the first time through is to not bother to pay special attention to story details. They get in the way of the fantastic visuals, which I guarantee are so arresting, they will prevent you from keeping up with the plot twists anyway. I don't think I got a purchase on the story's various double-crosses until my fourth or fifth viewing. I'm not sure they ever really clear up, anyway. 1
Welles' characters verbally explain (or complicate) things at the damndest times, such as when George Grisby buttonholes Michael on a narrow rampart high above the Acapulco Cliffs. Grisby is expressing his traumatic fear of a nuclear holocaust (pretty prescient thinking for 1946) while the camera holds him in a creepy, unpleasant wide-angle close-up. It's a case of claustrophobia - agoraphobia; Grisby stares into the sun as if already blinded by a nuclear blast.
The pattern of placing verbal exposition in scenes where we cannot possibly pay attention continues. Michael soon becomes the chump in a frame-up job so wild that we can't tell who tried to murder who first, or who picked Michael as the fall guy. I'm still not sure if the answer is fully answered in the dialogue in the famed mirror scene, a bravura sequence so arresting that I've yet to devote my full attention to the talk-talk. All I really know is that Michael O'Hara's romantic bubble is permanently popped. By the time Michael is staggering away from his dead and dying companions, the only hint that he won't throw himself into San Francisco Bay is the poetic melancholy in Welles' final burst of voiceover narration.
My favorite stretch of The Lady from Shanghai starts when the courtroom scene suddenly becomes a dizzying manhunt in Chinatown. Welles constructs an impressive Chinese theater scene mostly from shots of the actors' apprehensive eyes scanning the police that show up in the audience. I'm also impressed by the abrupt transformation of Elsa Bannister from helpless love object to savvy operative. She's not the lady from Shanghai for nothing. Stuck in a tight spot, Elsa summons her driver at the right moment and uses her knowledge of Cantonese to slip backstage at the theater. She suddenly seems fully capable of taking good care of herself and Michael as well.
It's fairly obvious why Harry Cohn was furious. His number one female attraction wasn't getting any younger, and that &@% Welles used up a year of her services indulging his artistic whims. Cohn clearly wanted to exploit Hayworth's bankable Gilda image, but this movie offers nothing to top that movie's hyper-sensual striptease scene. Hayworth is excellent in Shanghai, but we must concede that other leading ladies could have handled the role just as well.
In this picture "artistic whims" can be equated with "strokes of genius." One must love the movies to appreciate The Lady from Shanghai's non-standard storytelling methods. Shots simply aren't arranged in conventional continuity; new information is introduced with almost every cut. Sequences are constructed of views through telescopes, 'telescoping' a ten-week voyage down to an expressionist travelogue with seven or eight stops for dramatic scenes -- each with a music change. One detour seems a repeat of the "little picnic" episode in Citizen Kane. I've read enough notes about Welles' creative soundtrack ideas for other unfinished movies to be curious about the experimental audio he had in mind to accompany this film's rush of exciting visuals. A radio broadcast of a stupid jingle comes through at one point, followed by a snippet of Elsa singing a song. We're told that Cohn imposed the singing scene after Welles had been ejected from the studio. But the radio bit sounds like the kind of discordant interruption Welles might use to shake things up.
The Lady from Shanghai shook up Columbia all right. Not counting his Macbeth over at Republic, it marked the end of Orson Welles' Hollywood career and the beginning of his European exile. Among the dozens of half-completed, compromised, unfinished projects that followed he did manage a number of great pictures. But most of his time was spent acting in other people's movies. He performed in almost three times as many movies as he directed/tried to direct.
Still there's nobody remotely like Welles, and The Lady from Shanghai is without doubt one of his top titles. He will surely make more news this year, if his newly rediscovered early movie project Too Much Johnson sees its way beyond festival showings to the general public. Then the great Welles debates will surely begin again.
The TCM Vault Collection's Blu-ray - DVD Combo of The Lady from Shanghai is a very good HD encoding of this great, great picture. The old DVD was a little rough in spots, but the recent restoration by Sony is fine. Charles Lawton's cinematography never looks patchy and the added resolution shows us many optical tricks that before were invisible. Some of them may have been used to stitch together the studio's re-cut, such as a freeze-frame of the yacht at anchor. But now we can be certain that the final hall of mirrors scene relies heavily on slick optical work. The sharpness makes Welles' wide-angle close-ups look incredible. Glenn Anders' sweaty face is as sharp as the Acapulco waves hundreds of feet below. (Image above.)
The extras are par for TCM's releases, mainly text page items with photos and production notes, etc. Robert Osborne's brief introduction mentions a connection with Welles' Broadway version of Around the World in 80 Days, and implies that Harry Cohn green-lit the movie only to placate star Hayworth. The Film Foundation seems to have been involved in the restoration. TCM's website page erroneously mentions a commentary by Eddie Muller. The packaging lists one by Peter Bogdanovich, and that's what's on the Blu-ray.
The packaging is a bit confusing. The disc comes in a DVD-sized keep case holding one Blu-ray disc and one DVD. The only mention that a Blu-ray is involved are small logos on the spine and the back. To the disappointment of hearing-impaired film fans, TCM has continued their policy of providing no English subtitles. That means that a sizable audience has effectively been shoved aside. This label is of course not alone in this practice, which ends up being a form of discrimination.
I'm very happy to see the TCM Vault people taking the leap to Blu-ray, and hope they double back to reissue their Billy Wilder double bill of Five Graves to Cairo and A Foreign Affair. There's will always be room for more classic Blu-ray product.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lady from Shanghai Blu-ray + DVD rates:
1. I first saw The Lady from Shanghai in a crowded basement storage room in a UCLA dorm in 1970, projected by new film-student friend Randy Cook. The only fair way to describe my reaction was, "Whaa...?" I must have seen it fifteen times since then, and I'm not kidding when I say that I haven't bothered to analyze the details of the schemes-within-schemes plotline. Is there even a consensus as to exactly what has occurred?
Various sources claim that Errol Flynn is briefly visible in a cantina sequence -- it was Flynn's yacht that Welles leased to film the movie in Mexico. Forty-four years later, Randy Cook tells me that Joseph Cotten is in there somewhere too, tipping his hat. I guess I've been too distracted by the visuals to analyze the dialogue or pick up on either of these cameos.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.