By William Benker
Lady From Shanghai – 1947 – dir. Orson Welles
Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai bridges the cinematic landscape from drama to adventure and mystery. Led by its director (and protagonist) himself, alongside heroine Rosalie Bannister (Rita Hayworth), each character reveals layer after layer of insecurities, deception and greed throughout the story. However, the fascination lies within the depth that Welles is able to explore. Both tough guy and damsel reveal their true colors gradually, methodically, touching upon the most intimate conundrums of life, reflecting a harrowing character piece that shows the demons within oneself. The magic lies in Welles’ delivery, exposing the depths and revealing their own façade to be but a mere image they have create to shelter their true selves.
Perhaps it’s Welles’ own character, Michael O’Hara, whose over-narration reveals the mirrored self-analysis that comes to play a key role in the film’s riveting climax. Never making up his mind until it’s over, O’Hara reflects on the situation, describing his actions as foolish. In true mysterious fashion, the audience slowly realizes O’Hara’s perception of things is remarkably confident. Even admitting to killing a man doesn’t seem to upset him, as he has ultimately come to grips with the life he once lived. Only his true feelings of the police are exposed, drawing Rosalie’s (Hayworth’s) character right into his arms. The tough sailor understands the past is not relevant to his agenda, thus making him one of the few characters that remains entirely in the present throughout the film. It is only when he’s brought into a world of upper-class citizens that the web of deceit and greed surface beside the yacht he has just taken a working position for. Still, Mike O’Hara remains the anchor that keeps this riveting film steady.
Rosalie Bannister, on the other hand, constantly shifts between damsel and devil’s advocate behind a veil of longing for companionship. Gradually throughout the film, her character is riddled with indecision, speculation on her own life, and the malice that has grown between herself and her conservative husband. As she reacts to her make-believe surroundings of luxury, O’Hara introduces her to a primitive form of morality at hand, that ultimately projects him as an easy target for a more devious plan of murder and fraud. Hayworth’s character acts as a catalyst that invokes the very heart of O’Hara, placing his only flaw within the film as the need for another in his life. Whether Rosalie really did love Mike, or George, her dying words reveal a bout of honesty that only illustrates her own fear of existence itself.
The film’s exotic locations play a vital role in the examination of the upper class. Surrounded by beauty and tropical landscapes, the best criminal attorney, Arthur Bannister, spends most of his time reveling in his own success. At no point does he refer to his wife by anything but “lover,” in a formulated description of his shallow feelings for her. The young trophy wife, the exotic yacht under a mountain of unrequited alcoholism, and his obsession with success epitomizes the landscape seething self-deception. Only O’Hara really sees beyond the self-absorbed façade of the lawyer’s agenda. From the dangerous park at night, to the high seas, and even the courtroom itself, in a self-cross-examination of the Arthur, does the Lady From Shanghai reveal that all is not what it appears to be, leading to the most appropriate climax any film of self-deception could deserve: An abandoned fun house.
The off-season carnival presents the climax with a truly reflective image of the film itself. O’Hara’s confusion amongst the distorted fun house illustrates the contorted web or ruin that he finds himself in. In the final sequence descending into the hall of mirrors, Welles masterfully skews the images in a startling mosaic of disarray and fear. Rosalie’s plan to frame the man she supposedly loved and killing her husband exposes her ability to hide her most sought after treasure: her husband’s cash. In a standoff of mirrored images, the camera lens is bombarded with shards of glass that metaphorically illustrate the literal destruction of all the characters’ secrets. In the end, only O’Hara comes out alive in a full-circled resolution from the over-narration that began the film.
Lady from Shanghai stands as a wonderful precursor to the post-modern world of mystery and deceit that would later envelope cinema. Welles’ sharp eye for personal reflection and deceit delivers a complex parade of human emotion. Mike O’Hara, the tough sailor, wholly admits to his foolishness and the game that is constantly played, ultimately exhibits the revelation that love is the only emotion that propels him to do stupid things. Outside of love, O’Hara finds it much easier just keeping himself entirely on the surface. Perhaps this film could be seen as a more personal film for the director himself (having also wrote it), or maybe just once again illustrates the necessary self-examination on the craft of art itself in the hands of one of Americas most talented film makers.