The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai
is a 1947 classic drifter murder mystery adventure frame-up film noir directed by, written by, and starring Orson Welles and co-starring Welles's then-wife, Rita Hayworth. 

It is based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King.

A classic film noir for certain, and a legendary production, the sensibility of Orson Welles tipping again towards the joy of genius in the later 1940s.

As a film noir The Lady From Shanghai (1947) is a self-conscious exemplar of the style, throwing in further hints of Joseph Conrad, amid darkness and deceit, and the weary anti-hero — a romantic Irish drifter-writer figure created by Welles, a man who moves on a whim, cynical and attractive, individualist artistic type.

Plenty camera love is devoted to photographing Rita Hayworth and it may be among the most erotic photography of the decade. Combined with heat, deceit and rancour it makes for an exciting look, fore fronting sexual desire.
All of it is beautifully and repeatedly arrayed, and shown through several pairs of eyes including the laconic lover to be and the sweaty and seedy villain. 

The story is a combining of the drifter narrative with the promisingly available wife of an older man, set against some maritime noir as a floating nest of vipers navigates its way away from civilisation and towards murder.  

Irish sailor Michael O'Hara (Welles) meets the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Hayworth), the titular Lady, after saving her from muggers in Central Park. She offers him a job aboard her yacht, but things take a turn for the worse when Michael gets involved in a plot to help a man fake his death.

Ted de Corsia in The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

The central plot item is a classic film noir frame up. Grisby tells O'Hara that he wants to fake his own death in order to collect on insurance and get away, but actually the plan is to kill another man, Bannister and frame O'Hara for it.

In the end, Elsa and her husband shoot each other, with The Lady From Shanghai (1947) completing in a mutual death which allows the drifter hero to drift on.

Michael, the drifter played by Orson Welles, is at once amused, fascinated and disgusted by the badinage between Arthur, Elsa and George, and is not shy about saying so:

Is this what you folks do for amusement in the evening - sit around toasting marshmallows and call each other names? If you're so anxious for me to join the game, I'll be glad to. I have a few names I'd like to be calling you myself... Once, off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black, and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit o' idle fishin'. It was me had the first strike. A shark, it was. Then there was another, and another shark again... 'till all about, the sea was made of sharks, and more sharks, still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts go to eatin' each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.

We find him romantically writing a novel at the start of the picture, evoking Conrad once again, but promising much more favour, as we are in hard-boiled territory. 

Drifter writer artist type Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Meantime, as in the very best of classic film noir, we are treated to some excellent exterior photography of noir city itself, San Francisco.

San Francisco in The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

If you're a romantic, you're going to see Orson Welles as a visionary artist, subdued by the wicked forces of the studios, and you're going to treat all his idiosyncrasies of technique as ahead of their time, and signs that he's the greatest director there ever was.

If you're a realist, you're going to see Orson Welles as someone who treated the cinema as a toybox, and failed to realise the needs of viewers, a non-commercial experimentalist who struggled against studios who were only trying to recoup their investment in him, when they cut and changed his films.

Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

There's no doubt that in terms of innovation, Welles got away with plenty. In The Lady from Shanghai, as in a few of his other productions, there are beautiful crane shots, unusual close ups and many plot non-sequiturs for which you must simply suspended disbelief.  His sudden close ups in The Lady From Shanghai can be confusing, simply because the close up is a way of telling the audience that someone or something is important.

This isn't always the case however . . .

Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The scene in The Crazy House that concludes The Lady from Shanghai was supposedly twice as long as we see it, because the studio at the behest of Jack Cohn cut it.

Despite how marvellous the scenery and setting is, the studio probably made the right decision here.

After the amazing court room scene, which is absurd and comic, there is a nifty little chase into a Chinese theatre, before we get to this epic finale

Rita's change of hair was controversial. Studio boss Jack Cohn, mad about her, hated it. And the changes remains a testament to Orson Welle's own persuasive ways.

Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The scene in The Crazy House that concludes The Lady from Shanghai doesn't bear analysis of the 'the cinema is a mirror of our souls' type, but it is better understood as a way of maximising screen space, to allow multiple images, as a change from the usual frame.

Having said that, the mirrors do represent the plot of The Lady from Shanghai quite well.  Who is shooting at who, and what is real and what is not? All good questions. No good high period film noir exists without duplicity, paranoia and multiple viewpoints culminating in murder. So yes, the mirrors are apt.

It's said that Welles, on top of the other cuts he had to suffer, did not want any dramatic music introduced in these scenes, and yet it happened just the same, with the frustrated studio owner Harry Cohn insisting it be added. 

The audio which accompanies this denouement is telling, being gunshots and breaking glass. For fancier analysis, the mirror is not just a strikingly representative of anything you seek it to be, but for critical cineastes it is the ultimate answer:
The purity of Welles’ crystal image lies in this diegetic reiteration of broader cinematic tendencies. The mirrors optically reflect the characters and extend from the confusion and deceit that permeates the film’s plot. The actual becomes the virtual as the character’s bodies are refracted into endless reflections but the virtual also returns to the actual as both mirror and body are destroyed.
From "Critical Commons"
The Lady From Shanghai, for all its pleasures, is as grandiose as the criticism that it continues to inspire. Cinema certainly needed someone like Welles, whom we could describe best as an artist, and not a popcorn salesperson. The plot of the film, in truthfully artistic style, tells the story of its own production:

The film is narrated by Michael O’Hara, played by Orson Welles, a romantic yet naive figure with an Irish accent who has a tough-guy reputation in New York City. He spots Elsa Bannister, played by Rita Hayworth, and is straight away seduced by her beauty. She is the wife of a character called Arthur Bannister, played by Everett Sloane, who is tough in a different way, and certainly a figure of power, like the above-mentioned Harry Cohn, and a grotesque physical specimen. Later, after O’Hara discovers Elsa being assaulted, he rescues her. The three head off on an adventurous cruise, although the cruise is a set up, with O’Hara as the hapless mark. Who is setting him up, is most unclear.

There are some great details of The Playland and vintage aerial shots here at San Francisco City Sleuth

"Some people can smell danger. Not me."
— Michael O'Hara

Everett Sloane in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)


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