Title: The Lady from Shanghai
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir, Drama
Director/Writer: Orson Welles
based on Sherwood King’s novel IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Ted de Corsia
Revered as an exemplary film-noir by today’s cinephiles and critics, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was a calamitous project of prodigy Welles battling with Hollywood studio system, so much so that its behind-the-scene anecdotes (including the fickle relationship with his then wife Hayworth, they divorced in 1948) have somewhat eclipsed the film itself.
The plot is rather convoluted considering that there are only four main characters involved, Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish sailor in New York, gets involuntarily smitten with the titular blonde Elsa (Hayworth). who is another man’s wife. Michael then is recruited by the wealthy but disabled criminal defence attorney Arthur Bannister (Sloane), who happens to be Elsa’s husband, to his yacht as a seaman. Sailing via Panama Canal, from New York to San Francisco, with Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Anders) also on board, the yacht collects stunning scenery en route whilst a murder plan is hatching up. But it will undergo an unexpected turn in terra firma, yet, at any rate, Michael ends up as the fall guy.
Narrated by Michael’s sedate voice-over, and it is his angle we closely follows, the film imposes a distinctly visual allure of its chiaroscuro atmosphere, sharp facial close-ups with grotesque mannerism, or striking silhouettes between tête-a-tête, up until the climatic shoot-out in an abandoned Fun House, highlighted by the hall of mirrors where the all the masks and lies are bared, and leaving audience for a second, wonder who will be the sole survivor, out of its dashing and juxtaposed editing proficiency, it is an indelible flourish in Welles’ machination, in fact, this 92-minute original theatrical edition has been vastly re-edited by the decisions of Columbia Pictures executives, whereas Welles’ original cut runs around 155 minutes, that’s why Welles is uncredited as the director, so one might conjecture what could have been, if everything had went through according to Welles’ idea thoroughly.
A shortened masterpiece, one might call it, in its succinct characterisation, the film depicts the underbelly of a world full of sharks, lines like – “Everybody is somebody’s fool”, “The world’s greatest criminal lawyer could also be the world’s greatest criminal”, or “I don’t know how to fire a gun”, says a coy Elsa. “It’s easy, you just pull the trigger”, Michael responds inscrutably. – have already explained the myth and anticipated the denouement.
Hayworth was in the peak of her career, so the movie and Welles obligatorily splurges on her with great amount of close-ups, duly adds a paragraph where she lip-syncs PLEASE DON’T KISS ME as an irresistible siren. In her iconic femme-fatale form, Ms. Hayworth is the hallmark of Hollywood Golden Age’s glamour, there is some acting required, but realism is barely there.
A literally eye-popping Everett Sloane, a slippery Glenn Anders and a doe-eyed Welles are other three parties of the entangled murder game, where there is no innocence remains in the end. In all fairness, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is not instantly inviting, but cogently bestows its brilliance on its deducted value. It could have matched the greatness of CITIZEN KANE (1941) if it had embraced all the richness Welles envisioned.