“Well, Mr. Bannister’s picnic party was most typical of him. A lot of trouble and a great deal of money went into it, but it was no more a picnic than Bannister was a man,” says Michael O’Hara.
Orson Welles made his cinematic debut with 1941’s Citizen Kane, a film he had complete creative control over and would go on to achieve classic status (it is still shown and discussed in film classes to this day). He started to lose that creative control with his follow-up film, 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons. In the years that followed, Welles would have to deal with studio interference (which eventually led him to search for financing overseas for his films). In 1947, he teamed up with his estranged wife Rita Hayworth to make The Lady From Shanghai, a film that would eventually become regarded as one of the finest film noirs ever made despite being cut down from Welles’ original cut. It would also feature one of Hayworth’s best performances (rivaling even the one she gave in 1946’s Gilda, for which she remains most famous for). I saw The Lady From Shanghai on the big screen at the Museum of the Moving Image 12 years ago, and again last summer at the Museum of Modern Art in a new DCP restoration. It was enjoyable each time I saw it, and is a film that only gets better with age. This review of The Lady From Shanghai is my entry in the 1947 Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin & Speakeasy.
Based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai follows an Irish sailor who rescues a beautiful blonde one night in Central Park. Her husband, a famous criminal defense attorney, repays him by hiring him to work on his yacht. Soon, the sailor is drawn into a web of love and deceit that threatens his life and her marriage. Welles co-wrote, directed, and stars as Michael O’Hara, the down-on-his-luck Irish sailor. Hayworth stars as Elsa Bannister, the film’s femme fatale, and Everett Sloane portrays Elsa’s husband Arthur, a crippled defense lawyer. Glenn Anders plays George Grisby, Arthur’s partner who draws O’Hara into a fake murder plot that becomes more complicated and hits a few twists and turns along the way. Ted De Corsia portrays Sidney Broome, a private detective hired by Arthur to follow Elsa who becomes entangled in Grisby’s plot as well. Welles brings a good amount of naivite to O’Hara, who still succumbs to Elsa’s charms even when trying to be clear-headed. Hayworth gives a career-best performance as the conniving, two-faced Elsa, making her somewhat sympathetic even though she shouldn’t be at all. Sloane shines as Arthur, crafting a character more complex than he seems. Their performances generate a lot of electricity, especially when all three share the screen together.
The screenplay by Welles, William Castle, Charles Lederer, and Fletcher Markle weaves a web of lies and deceit, exploring the darker side of seemingly good people (the use of mirrors both metaphorically and literally is put to great use, particularly in the third act). Charles Lawton Jr.’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography casts a long shadow over the film and is used to great effect (not to mention that it looks gorgeous). The production design by Sturges Carne and Stephen Goosson utilizes multiple real-life locations (unusual for a studio film at the time) as well as those that had to be created (the Hall of Mirrors is my favorite). The film’s climax is one of the biggest reasons for the film’s fame, and for good reason (it’s a shame the footage from Welles’ original cut is gone; I would’ve loved to have seen the 20 minute version of the Hall of Mirrors sequence). Although the theatrically-released version of The Lady From Shanghai isn’t quite what Welles had intended, it remains one of the finest film noirs ever made and a worthy addition to the Welles canon. If you get a chance to see it on the big screen, do not miss the opportunity!