What a dilemma The Lady from Shanghai provokes. Orson Welles is in my directors’ pantheon, so I want to like the movie more than I do. Individual parts of it contain moments of great brilliance, originality, and imagination—all the things I admire in Welles. But as a whole the film lacks coherence. The result is that it seems better in retrospect than it does during the actual watching of it. I suppose that’s because memory can be selective, focusing on the best things in the movie, whereas while watching it I’m constantly aware of its flaws.
The paradox is that this failure to cohere both is and isn’t Welles’s fault. His original cut was taken out of his hands, tinkered with for nearly two years by Columbia, and reduced by about an hour before being released. Yet if Welles had shown more artistic self-control and greater ability to follow through on the project—problems that seemed to plague his entire career as a director—maybe the studio powers wouldn’t have felt compelled to take the movie away from him and reshape it. Some of Welles’s movies managed to withstand such tampering. The Magnificent Ambersons was revised by people who were sympathetic to the elegiac mood he had aimed for and able to preserve that mood more or less intact. Touch of Evil was a brilliant movie in its original release version and improved even further in the 1998 version after being re-edited according to Welles’s notes. The Lady from Shanghai was not so fortunate as those two films, and the greatness that comes through so clearly in its best parts must forever remain a potentiality, a frustrating tease to admirers of Welles like me.
The plot of the movie is in the classic film noir mold of the late 1940s. A loner, Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish seaman who fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists, meets a beautiful, mysterious woman by chance one night in New York. The woman, Elsa Bannister (a rather enervated Rita Hayworth, her normal ardor damped down by her cropped, icy blonde hair), is trapped in an unhappy marriage to an older man (Everett Sloane, who’s terrific—alternately sinister and funny). Her husband, a rich, brilliant criminal defense lawyer, has some kind of hold over her and has apparently blackmailed her into marriage. She also believes she’s in danger and seeks O’Hara’s protection while at the same time obviously coming on to him.
At first he resists her advances then finds himself lured into signing on as a seaman on the yacht (tellingly named the Circe) she and her husband are sailing from New York to San Francisco. Soon he is not only her protector but her lover. To get the money to run away with her, he agrees to a very unlikely scheme proposed by the husband’s business partner (Glenn Anders, who with his flamboyant performance manages to steal every scene he’s in) that involves O’Hara’s helping him fake his suicide. Of course, nothing in the situation is what it seems: The true purpose of the shady scheme is entirely different from what O’Hara has been told, Elsa is just as likely a manipulative opportunist as a helpless victim, and O’Hara is soon set up as a fall guy and framed for murder.
The plot is really just a framework for a series of elaborately photographed and edited set pieces. It’s questionable whether the rather conventional plot merits such stylistic exuberance, but I for one am willing to accept this as a way to add visual appeal and the veneer of substance to an intriguing but superficial melodrama. The opening sequence in Central Park and the streets of New York, the beach party in Mexico so reminiscent of the picnic in Citizen Kane, the aquarium scenes (despite the detectable use of back projection), the Chinese opera in Chinatown in San Francisco, the finale at the amusement park fun house culminating in the famous shoot-out in the Hall of Mirrors—these are all justly renowned and leave an indelible impression.
And yet as I watched, I found myself wanting more. While these set pieces can be enjoyed as eye-catching ends in themselves, I kept craving greater narrative coherence. It’s clear that the extensive re-editing and reduction of the film’s length weakened it. It has a jumpy, decidedly unfluid feel to it, lurching ungracefully from one segment to the next. This air of fragmentation does nothing for the opaque plot. In its final form, the movie is the Last Year at Marienbad of film noir—arty eye candy with a nearly impenetrable plot. In Marienbad that’s just fine because it’s the whole point of the film. But The Lady from Shanghai is a conventional mystery, the kind of story that doesn’t completely satisfy unless it can untangle its snarled plot and offer a lucid explanation of mystifying events. The surviving version of the movie just doesn’t adequately do that.
The astounding Hall of Mirrors finale was perhaps intended as an allusion to the convolutions of the film’s plot, and the final shattering of the mirrors to signify the return to order from a state of deception and illusion. But the memory of this sequence most viewers retain is of multiple reflections fragmenting into yet more reflections, not the simple reality of the final images. That is in a way appropriate, for even though its many exhilarating moments give tantalizing glimpses of what might have been had Welles been able to see the film through to completion, in the end The Lady from Shanghai delivers not clarity, but confusion—beautiful confusion, but confusion nevertheless.
Here’s the trailer for this film classic:
A nearly lifelong cinephile, R. D. Finch lives in rural Northern California. His favorite movies are the classics (roughly 1930-1980), both American and foreign. For more on Finch and his writing, visit The Movie Projector.
What are your favorite Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth films? Be sure to let us know in the comments!