Lady from Shanghai, The (1948): Orson Welles’ Great Film Noir Starring Rita Hayworth

A highlight of film noir as a genre and movement, The Lady from Shanghai is Orson Welles’ visually stunning film of 1948, starring (former wife) Rita Hayworth. It’s based on Sherwood King’s novel, If I Die Before I Wake, adapted to the screen by Welles. Working with the film noir narrative and stylistic conventions, he fashions a complex tale of passion, adultery, and betrayal.

Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an existential hero, an unemployed Irish would-be novelist, who comes to the rescue of Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth in a short blond hair is at her prime), a mysterious and beautiful woman who is being mugged at Central Park.

After a brief and flirtatious conversation, the Elsa vanishes. Soon after, Michael is hired as a crew member for a pleasure cruise south of the border on a yacht owned by Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), who is no other than the husband of his mystery lady, Elsa Bannister. It turns out he’s a brilliant lawyer, severely crippled.

The Bannisters seem to have odious time for wanting O’Hara aboard their ship. O’Hara is introduced to Bannister’s associate Glenn Anders (George Grisby), and is slowly implicated in a strange plan of murder and fraud for which he is then blamed.

Narrated by Welles, the film boasts a poignant voice-overs by Welles, with great lines, such as, “When I start out to make a fool of myself, there’s little enough can stop me,” or “I never make up my mind about anything at all, until it’s over and done with.” They don’t write such dialogue in Hollywood anymore! Rita Hayworth, Welles’ ex-wife, plays the femme fatale, a woman who is at once a victim and victimizer.

The plot is bizarre, baffling and a bit confusing, but the movie’s stylistic brilliance more than makes up for its narrative faults. The late French director Francois Truffaut once said, that the raison d’etre for a film like “The Lady from Shanghai” is the “cinema itself.” Indeed, in this mysterious and romantic thriller, the camera is the star. The noted hall of mirror climax is still riveting, decades after it was shot.

Most of the film is set in San Francisco, using its famous aquarium, Chinatown, and other locales most originally. But there are also trips to Acapulco and plenty of “action” aboard a yacht.

How and Why the Film Was Made?

The Lady from Shanghai was the film that orson Welles had to make in exchange for Harry Cohn (head of Columbia)  help in financing the stage production Around the World.

It was intended as a modest thriller, but the budget escalated when Cohn suggested Rita Hayworth, Welles’s then-estranged second wife, as star.

Cohn disliked Welles’s rough assemblage, complaining about the plot (confusing) , lack of sufficient close-ups of his glamorous star, Welles’s use of irony, and touches of black comedy in the courtroom scene. As a result, Cohn ordered extensive editing and re-shoots.

After heavy editing, which amounted to almost one hour of Welles’s first cut, including much of a climactic confrontation scene in an amusement park funhouse, the brutalized and compromised film was released.  Even more upsetting to Welles than the rough cuts was the musical score.

Like other Welles’s films, The Lady from Shanghai was a flop at the time of initial release.  In later years, the film was reevaluated and gained critical stature, especially the spectacular hall of mirrors sequences.  It is now considered one of the best film noir ever made.

 

Credits

Columbia

Running Time: 87 minutes

Director and Producer: Orson Welles
Associate Producers: Richard Wilson, William Castle
Screenplay: Orson Welles; from the novel “Before I Die,” by Sherwood King
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Special Mirror Effects: Lawrence Butler
Sound: Lodge Cunningham
Music Score: Heinz Roemheld
Art Directors: Stephen Goosson Sturges Carne
Set Decoration: Wilbur Menefee, Herman Schoenbrun
Costumes: Jean Louis
Film Editor: Viola Lawrence

Cast

Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister)
Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara)
Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister)
Glenn Anders (George Grisby)
Ted de Corsia (Sid Broome)
Erskine Sanford (Judge)
Gus Schil (Goldie)
Carl Frank (District Attorney)