The Lady from Shanghai – 1947 – dir. Orson Welles
On the list of favorite movies my mind’s Rolodex holds, The Lady from Shanghai has always had a special place. It was a treat seeing it again after all these years, not only because it is a good movie but because the last time I saw it, I was a college student at one of the weekly film viewings our Student Union Association ran in the school cafeteria. Every Friday evening, all tables and chairs would be cleared
from the dining hall, a rickety screen was erected in front of the cafeteria kitchen and we students would be left perfectly content to belly down on the floor or sit Indian-style, sipping Boone’s Apple Farm or Blue Nun from Dixie cups. The lights would go down, leaving us in the dark with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth. I remember most the girls cuddled up against the walls or each other psyched for a night of nicotine (those were the days when you could still smoke in campus buildings), gossip and movie goddesses from the 30s and 40s. To me, they were not half-a-sleepy co-eds wrapped in blankets and pillows dragged over from their dorms but secret Rita Hayworths dreaming they were, or could some day be, as steamy and as sultry as she was, as defiant as she was, as immortal as she was. That is what movie stars do for us; they keep us alive and dreaming. Seeing a movie we have seen before in our long ago past resurrects memories not only of that movie but of who we were and where we were when we first saw it. A movie is a mirror of itself but also a mirror of Time
and of us. And so it is for me with The Lady from Shanghai...
Orson Welles was recovering from a blacklisted period in his life when the script for The Lady from Shanghai came his way. He had made what many considered and some still consider to be the ne plus ultra of cinematic innovation, Citizen Kane, a heady revelry of creation, a first-rank masterpiece. But the movie became a commercial failure, due in large part to the outrage of newspaperman and power magnate, William Randolph Hearst, the man it portrayed. Hearst buried Citizen Kane in bad reviews and limited release and saw to it Welles was banned from mainstream movie-making. Following a period of bitter inactivity and creative frustration, Welles, in 1946, made a movie called The Stranger and with it regained his cachet as a viable director. When a script based on a book called, “If I Die Before I Wake” came along, he optioned it and planned to make a small, low-budget thriller of it. But his then-wife, Rita Hayworth (whose stormy marriage to Welles was, by that time, falling apart) talked Welles into making a bigger picture with the two of them as stars. Her hope was that working together might save their crumbling marriage. She was wrong; before production had ended, so, too, had their marriage. It was another personal failure among a string of failures for the gifted but troubled Hayworth, and it would be years before she would forgive Welles for The Lady from Shanghai.
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino, Rita Hayworth started out following in the footsteps of her famous, Mexican dancer father Eduardo, and soon, her talent not only for dancing but for play-acting became obvious. But all was not well with the Cansino family; little Rita was the victim of violent physical and sexual abuse. Sadly, by the time she became the famous Rita Hayworth, the trials of her childhood had caught up with her. Lovers, husbands, friends and fellow actors found her erratic personality difficult to deal with, navigating her frequent mood swings and tantrums until they could take no more. In record time, she had become movie mogul, Harry Cohn’s, biggest star and the #1 most popular pin-up girl of World War II, every U.S. serviceman’s wet dream. In hits like Gilda, Cover Girl, Blood and Sand, Pal Joey, You Were Never Lovelier, and countless others, she rose to great heights of international fame. But in private she could be hell-on-wheels. She was already a reigning queen of the movie world when she met Orson Welles, himself a giant of a genius, as temperamental as she was, and as ego-driven; not the best ingredients for a successful marriage. But as an acting team, in The Lady From Shanghai, they can’t be beat.
Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a charming seafarer, and Hayworth, rich sophisticate, Elsa Bannister. When they meet, O’Hara falls hard for Elsa and from that point on, you know no good is going to come of this match. No character in this movie is good; the character Welles plays might be the most noble of all the human snakes who populate it, but by his own admission (his character narrates the movie), he gets “stupid for love” from the moment he sets eyes on Hayworth. But what red hot-blooded male wouldn’t turn into Dumbo for the likes of Rita Hayworth? With her deliciously white, porcelain face and hair, she epitomizes glamor and sexuality. Outside, she is all gilt and crystal and silver. Inside her, though, seethes the boiling waters of schemes and deceits. An essential element of any film noir worth its salt is a woman who cannot be trusted and Hayworth plays Elsa Bannister with all the sincerity of a depth charge. Welles is screwed from the start (pun fully intended!).
The Lady from Shanghai is a thrill of technical mastery and tone. Welles was often criticized for being too flamboyant with his camera, but he was not interested in following strict notions of narrative form. Always, he strove to concentrate on the look, the feel, the atmosphere of his tale. He was not one for straight storytelling, which is what makes his movies so memorable, so unique, so much his own. Reviewers also were fond of criticizing the flamboyance of Welles’ background scenes; they detracted from the principal action, critics said. But Welles knew what he was up to. Often the richness,, the closeness of what is going on behind the actors emboldens what is going on in the foreground. Pay attention to that scene where Welles and Glenn Anders walk a beachhead precipice alone together. A palpable menace pervades every frame. The crashing waves, the flying clouds are almost on top of them. You feel at any moment one or both of them will push the other off the cliff, or lose his footing and be swallowed by the rocks. This malice, or malaise, if you will, perceived throughout the movie, is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Danger waits around every corner, even when a character is doing something as seemingly benign as smoking a cigarette or climbing out of a rickshaw.
In spite of the strong criminal themes, though, there is a general comic tone, especially in the trial scenes; not comedy exactly but comic satire, a send-up of trials and judges and lawyers (Welles harbored a lifelong contempt for the legal profession and here, it shows. So much has been written about the Funhouse Mirror Scene that I will not spoil the surprise for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. But suffice it to say that it still packs a crackerjack wallop and retains its deservedly iconic place in the pantheon of famous movie finales. Besides the great Orson Welles and the great Rita Hayworth, the movie boasts the great Everett Sloane (Welles’ Mercury Theater colleague and friend) as Elsa’s husband, Arthur Bannister, a cripple in more ways than one, and character actor, Glenn Anders, as vile and as diabolical a villain as ever there has been.
When it was first released, The Lady from Shanghai was somewhat popular in Europe but did not do well here in the States. Studio heads left at least an hour’s worth of footage on the cutting room floor. As far as is known, the movie has never been seen in its entirety. What you see is only a crumb of the whole cake Welles served up. In fact, The Lady from Shanghai languished in anonymity until American author Truman Capote mentioned, in the 1950s, how much he loved it, told how he could quote line after line of its delicious dialogue by heart and had watched the movie dozens of times. Only then did The Lady from Shanghai receive the attention and the acclaim that it and Orson Welles deserved. It is arguably the best film noir ever made, or at least one of the best. Better than Welles’ hapless rube, Rita Hayworth’s luscious bitch, and the glories of Acapulco, San Francisco and Shanghai, no moviegoer can ever do!!