Shot in 1947, The Lady from Shanghai was adapted for the screen by Orson Welles, from the novel, If I Should Die Before I Wake, by author Sherwood King. Today, the film is remembered as the auteur’s classic, but upon its initial release, the film was unsuccessful at the box office. Experimental and innovative with camera techniques for the time, with combinations of fast, jumpy cuts and long tracking and crane shots, which enhanced the malice and mystery of the plot, Welles ultimately elevates film noir into another dimension. Every shot is particularly and intentionally framed as if it were a photograph. He even includes comedic moments by advantageously incorporating dark humor. Without a doubt a master of cinematic perspective, Welles could not have completed any of his works if it was not for his artistic peers, and incredibly talented fellow actors.
Established by Welles in 1937, the Mercury Theatre was an independent repertory theatre company based out of New York City. The company truly embodied the spirit that stems from live performance and entertainment, and this quality carried over to his films. Welles narrates The Lady from Shanghai in its entirety, as if reading from the book itself. With that said, the difficulty in translating the reader’s internalizations, to a universal perspective, is very much a challenge for a visual storyteller. The performances of all of the characters, and their troupe-like mentality—perhaps a camaraderie from the theater—creates a synchronism that allows this translation to become a universal experience for the viewer; only if you are willing to enter the film world unabashed.
Welles, himself, is a player on the stage of The Lady from Shanghai, as Mike O’Hara, the seaman who needs a job (and falls in love). It is, at times, impossible to believe O’Hara’s naivety, and the sudden change at the end, for he is the storyteller, the narrator speaking in the past tense, and the writer/director. But, once again, his multi-faceted artistry reveals his professionalism.
And then there is Everett Sloane, a well-respected and admired member of the Mercury Theatre who followed Welles to collaborate in Hollywood. Another one of his most notable screen performances was as Bernstein in Citizen Kane. In this film, he plays Mr. Bannister, a trial attorney, with the charisma to match. There are times that Sloane’s dialogue seems written just for him, with the confidence that he is the only one that can deliver such lines. His character is physically crippled, but he possesses all that money can buy, including power.
The Lady from Shanghai also contains one of the most recognizable elements in film noir, the femme fatale. Rita Hayworth plays Mrs. Bannister, the quintessential femme fatale reinvented. There was controversy over her famous red hair being dyed platinum blond. This directly opposes the stereotype of a femme fatale as a darker figure—with dark hair and eyes—foreign and exotic. In contrast, Hayworth is fair and doe-eyed, young and vulnerable, and with that innocence, she plays the victim so well. Such an unassuming force of destruction, Hayworth redefined the classic image of a femme fatale. Welles’s estranged wife at the time, the chemistry is unbearable, for all you can notice is how Welles’s character hates to love Hayworth. She seamlessly floats within the story, as if indestructible and unattainable between the men she is surrounded by, yet her silence reveals more than her dialogue.
The film could not be an Orson Welles film without containing a foreboding message—one that warns the audience of such qualities in human nature, which are universal and result in tragic demise. The boat (or stage) the characters sail through the Panama Canal is named Circe, and if ever there was a Greek myth of destruction and temptation, it is that of the goddess Circe in Homer’s The Odyssey. Placing his players strategically in a confinement of a boat, as well as the frame, reveal the power dynamics between them. The complexity of the relationships between Mr. Bannister, Mrs. Bannister, O’Hara, and the other actors, is enhanced by their performances and willingness to engage with one another in such a close proximity within the film’s frame: Mr. Bannister in the mid-ground, O’Hara in the background, and Mrs. Bannister in the foreground.
Bordering the line of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, the bourgeois are represented as frivolous, selfish, and capable of anything, willing to even turn on one another—sharks eating sharks. This relates to the previous mentioned allusion to the goddess Circe—who after luring Odysseus and his crew to stay with her on an exotic island, advises him to take his boat and crew past Scylla, a section of jagged rocks, or take the route of Charybdis, a whirl-pool. The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” derives from this story, and also creates a direct correlation between Circe and Hayworth’s character Mrs. Bannister. Their exotic trip full of indigenous and exotic people, dangerous wild animals, is the very dream world that myths exist within. Welcome to the filmic world. Not even, welcome to the world of storytelling, and be ready to be engaged.