The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

"The Lady From Shanghai" featured image. Detail from the original Italian movie poster.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947). 88 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles.  Starring Orson Welles (as Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (as Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (as Arthur Bannister), and Glenn Anders (as George Grisby).

The Lady from Shanghai is a sophisticated film noir about the difference between reality and illusion, but one could also say that it is a movie about creepy people doing creepy things in creepy places.  For the first-time viewer, it may seem most like a film that is struggling to be coherent in spite of its leaving the audience with many unanswered questions, such as: what does the husband know and when?  What are we to make of the wife’s mysterious past in Shanghai, her smoldering glances, and her inexplicable moodiness?  Did she marry her husband to protect a secret?  Is she in danger?  With dialogue such as “Everything’s bad.  You can’t fight it” and “It’s a bright, guilty world,” we might wonder where the characters’ bleak worldview comes from.

Part of our confusion probably stems from the fact that this film was originally almost one hour longer in director Orson Welles’s final cut than it is in its released form.  The cut footage has been lost, and what remains is the at times impressionistic story of a sailor who gets ensnared in the intrigues of the couple whose yacht he pilots.  Auteur theory maintains that the director’s is the most important voice in the shaping of any film, but I think we must also admit that if an editor can make such a sizable difference on the final cut, then the editor can be at least as important as the director.  Because Welles’s Hollywood career followed a certain pattern, with his longer works being edited down in their late stages at a producer’s behest and without his final approval, we are typically left with Welles films that are not wholly reflective of his vision or that he has publicly disavowed.  Thus, in our studies of Welles, we often speculate with wonder about the masterpiece status of the lost original (this is most famously the case with Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons; for more on that project and the fate of others, see Peter Bogdanovich’s This Is Orson Welles).  With almost an additional hour of footage, many of the problems of plot and characterization of The Lady from Shanghai might have been resolved, but it is also impossible to determine what additional complexities might have arisen in the extra footage had it been maintained.  As is the case with so many Welles films, we must accept The Lady from Shanghai as a mystery likely never to be solved.

The story of how The Lady from Shanghai was made is almost as complex as the film itself.  The shoot was reportedly dangerous and disastrous during its long international segments.  Welles insisted on filming the first half of the movie almost entirely at sea on board Errol Flynn’s yacht, the Zaca (renamed the Circe in the film).  Flynn was famous for his wild parties on the water and insisted on piloting the boat himself, although at that point his alcoholism was fully developed.  Half of the crew had dysentery; a crew member died on the boat; Welles was bitten by a poisonous South American insect and thought he himself would die.  In the meantime, his marriage to star Rita Hayworth was deteriorating.  They had been separated for a time and would file for divorce shortly after filming completed in proceedings that would last longer than their actual marriage.  And, of course, the reshooting demanded by the studio (more close-ups were the order of the day) and the editing debacle that concluded the picture were stormy affairs in their own right.

It is fantastic then, in spite of the problematic shoot and the devastating course of the editing, that such a marvelous picture survives.  The film’s success rests partly on the shoulders of its tremendous performers.  The characters are Arthur Bannister (played by Everett Sloane), an infamous and wildly successful defense attorney, and his blonde bombshell wife, Elsa (played by Rita Hayworth), who need a skipper for their luxury yacht as they pilot it from New York through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to San Francisco.  They find one in Michael O’Hara, played by director Orson Welles with an admittedly strange Irish brogue, who announces to Elsa that he once killed a man while in Spain.  Far from repulsing her, however, his admission seems to convince her that he’s the right man for the job.  Strange.  Thus we are tipped off that there is something not quite right about Elsa or the yacht journey from the very start.

As for Arthur Bannister, he has the unnerving habit of calling his wife “lover” in an acidic and inappropriate fashion.  It is an awkward epithet as the marriage is decidedly not in a good state, and it would appear that no sex has occurred between the two in some time.  He is crippled (how completely or why is not made clear) and walks with the help of two canes.  The weakness with which he hobbles around, however, is in contradistinction to the power he displays in his relationship with his wife.  He constantly taunts her and Michael; she, for her part, submits to his cruelty, apparently miserable.  Given the personalities involved, this pleasure cruise is claustrophobic from the start, a sort of “proto-L’Avventura in which no one has the decency to disappear,” according to Brian Phillips.  Only when Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (played by Glenn Anders) weirdly shows up in a dinghy as the yacht is moored near a rocky outcrop does Arthur find a rival for making Michael (and the audience) uncomfortable.  Grisby has a bizarre manic smile that he flashes constantly, even when discussing the atomic bomb, even when explaining privately to Michael along the Acapulco cliffs that he would like him to kill him—or to pretend to, as Michael later learns.

Welles’s use of those Central American cliffs to suggest looming danger and extreme behavior is brilliant and evocative.  His selection of locations throughout the film is extremely special, and the movie’s sense of place does as much to shape our sense that something malignant is afoot as the dialogue does.  I do not say this because the dialogue is unimportant.  On the contrary, consider the scene on the Mexican island where Arthur decides to throw a massive nighttime picnic.  Parked in a hammock beside his wife, he eviscerates her verbally in front of Grisby and Michael.  In response, Michael cooly relates a horrifying story from his days as a sailor when he saw sharks eating each other at sea, swimming around in their own blood in a frenzy of callousness and self-destruction.  That’s what he sees before him now, he says.

This is one of the best speeches in the picture.  Not only is it wonderfully descriptive and deeply disturbing, but it also establishes the often reticent Michael as a powerful commentator on what he sees transpiring during the sea voyage.  While Michael often occupies the role of observer, in other words, he is nevertheless no helpless bystander.  But consider this: even if we did not hear this wonderful speech, even if the scene played out just as is without the dialogue, we would still understand that the tension is mounting among the main characters.  As the film shows us picnic revelers passing by in canoes with strange torches in the dimly lit lagoon, we would still gather without the sound that something primally sinister is afoot amongst the static principal characters even as they impassively recline in their hammocks.  Similarly, later in San Francisco, when Elsa and Michael visit the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park, they converse in front of the shark tanks. Welles cleverly underscores visually what Michael has conveyed earlier: as the fish swim behind them, we know to beware.

In San Francisco, Michael agrees to take up the offer Grisby made him in Mexico: Michael will pretend to kill  him for cash that he can use to run off with Elsa.  Then Grisby winds up really dead, and Michael goes on trial for murder, defended by Arthur.  We see Arthur in his capacity as a lawyer in the sort of courtroom scene that would never exist in real life, but then the point is that Arthur is a master manipulator of everyone having to do with the law, and the trial, in its unreality, takes on a nightmarish quality.  Unfortunately for Michael, over the course of the hearing, Arthur discovers persuasive evidence that Michael and Elsa are (sort of) having an affair.  Michael’s case now seems hopeless, and on the day the verdict is to be read, he escapes from the courtroom to Chinatown (we never hear the verdict).   In a conclusion akin to that of the great film noir of the 1970s, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the climactic showdown of this crime story will take place in a quarter of the city perceived by non-Chinese to be both exotic and corrupt. Elsa explained in the film’s opening scenes that she spent time in China, and now we see that she is actually fluent in Chinese and has connections with the Chinatown underworld.  She finds Michael in a Chinese theater and has him evacuated to a seaside amusement park, where he comes to in a fun house.

The fun house sequence, as Welles related in This Is Orson Welles and elsewhere, was originally substantially longer.  It is extremely surreal in its current form, and the pace of the sequence is pleasantly rapid, but it is a true shame that more footage existed and has been lost.  This part of the film now chiefly consists of the brilliant hall-of-mirrors scene, where Michael, Elsa, and Arthur engage in an armed showdown.  In the mirrors, we have the chance to see these characters for what they are—killers, but at the same time, unlike themselves in that they are multiplied and eerily more than themselves.  When Arthur enters, the strange effect of seeing his crutches emerge from a corner of one mirror before we see the rest of him reflected many times over suggests both how real the images are (because Arthur is still reliant on his canes and bound by his physical condition) and how unreal (because he moves around so magically as a reflection).  The scene underscores the disguises the characters have worn throughout the entire film: because they are constantly teasing, plotting, scamming, and scheming, it is unclear if we have ever seen them as their true selves until now, and yet the irony is that this scene is thoroughly illusory in the sense that we do not see them—only their reflections.  Even the violence is unreal.  There seems to be so much of it; once they start firing and bullets pierce the mirrors, there seem to be so many shattered images.  But there are only two deaths.  Even the consequences of the gun play are an illusion until we actually see the huddled bodies on the floor.  It is as if much of the plot’s murkiness and our inability to see everything clearly so far is being presented in a more stylized fashion in this sequence, as if the finale is a reflection on the film’s own diffracted nature.

It is hard not to read the circumstances of the film into the final product.  We should keep in mind the fact that Welles made The Lady from Shanghai because he was desperate for money.  His elaborate stage production of Around the World in Eighty Days was underway, and he needed costumes.  Of course, he was funding the play himself by that point, which would come to be the modus operandi for all of his projects.  To raise the cash, he made a deal over the phone with Columbia Pictures producer Harry Cohn: for $50,000 Welles would make a movie for him, an easy, low-budget thriller that would bring in a big return.  Welles looked around the phone booth, saw a book in a paperback stand close by (Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake), and proposed it for subject matter although he had never read it.  But the movie that turned into The Lady from Shanghai did not turn out to be a pocket-sized crime story on a shoestring budget.  Welles transformed it into a trans-continental, around-the-world Rita Hayworth vehicle that was twice as long as Cohn wanted it to be.  Welles was nothing if not married to his craft.  By all accounts his devotion to the cinema, as to the stage, was all-consuming.  Like his character Michael, he found himself again deceived by his own passions into thinking that the studio would embrace his endeavors.