The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Columbia Pictures  Director Orson Welles   Producer Harry Cohn  Screenplay Orson Welles & William Castle Director of Photography Charles Lawton Jr  Actors Orson Welles  Rita Hayworth  Erskine Sanford  Everett Sloane  Glenn Anders  Ted de Corsia

ELSA: I wouldn’t know how to use a gun anyway…                             

O’HARA: It’s easy. You just pull the trigger.


 By Julien Allen

The Lady from Shanghai might be the film which most divides students of Welles’ cinema. It’s an emblematic example of a misunderstood Welles masterpiece. One of the most celebrated of films noir, yet still one of the most historically overlooked of Welles’ works.

After the Ambersons debacle and a fruitless experiment with the mainstream, The Stranger (1945), RKO would never have anything to do with Welles again. Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, a legendary Hollywood mogul and notorious tyrant (whose well-attended funeral led to the famous joke about giving the public what they want) took up the reins. The modestly budgeted Shanghai was nothing like as much of a gamble as Kane or Ambersons, but once again the finished film caused all sorts of difficulties. Cohn didn’t understand the plot (he made it known that he had offered a million dollars to anyone who could successfully explain it to him) and the film was eventually recut, rescored and redubbed in Welles’ absence in an attempt to make it more comprehensible. It was then dismissively released as the sort of B feature it was so clearly intended by Welles to be a homage to.

Naive Irishman Michael O’Hara is hired as a crew member on the yacht of an eccentric millionaire and soon finds himself romantically implicated with the millionaire’s beautiful wife Elsa (Hayworth) and with a murder he didn’t commit.

What the french call “mise en scene” (literally “composition”) was of primordial importance to Welles, so the plausibility of the plot (in this case, essentially, an innocent man is drawn into a web of intrigue by a woman which in itself is not only plausible but highly conventional) was less important to him, save to the extent that it enabled Welles to delve into the emotional dynamics of the characters. For example, the fracturing relationship between Welles’ and Hayworth’s characters is handled – in form and substance – in an uncommonly sophisticated manner, for what is essentially a femme-fatale/innocent-chump storyline.

It has often been put forward that Welles intended revenge on his ex-wife Rita Hayworth by casting her as the bad girl and giving her a cruel comeuppance. This is a strange accusation, given that some of the finest women’s roles in the Cinema have been femmes fatales (think of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not). Welles’ response to Hayworth’s plea that she doesn’t know how to use a gun, echoes Bacall’s “You know how to whistle don’t you? Just put your lips together and blow”. On the contrary, Welles’ only real interest was in making a thrilling film and Hayworth’s astonishing, convincingly tortured performance consecrates his success in that regard.

Welles fully understood the attractions, both of film noir themes (jealousy, greed, paranoia) and the visual opportunities that go with them. Whilst Shanghai was chiefly a stylistic exercise, all the famous set-pieces are highly supportive of the film’s themes and the characters’ relationships, in particular the sequences of O’Hara losing his mind. The result is a compelling but unsettling film where the viewer alternates between the delicious satisfaction provided by the technicity and the rather discomforting feelings brought about by the murky plot and uncompromising denoument. Film Noir as, literally, Dark Film.

Many scenes stand out as examples of Welles’ unparallelled visual invention – the lovers meeting at the aquarium, the descent into the “house of fun” and the final “hall of mirrors” shootout are just three outstanding set pieces amongst a miasma of unsettling camera angles, close-ups and deep, overbearing shadows. The great cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who lit The Magnificent Ambersons) once said of Welles that he understood lighting better than anyone in the Cinema. Welles had of course developed a reputation for great innovation in production design and theatre lighting before his film career started. The big box of tricks is opened here again.

Welles’ unique talent was in reinventing himself with every film, so whilst there are familiar Wellesian hallmarks in Shanghai (overlapping dialogue, deep focus etc) it is still a work of stunning visual originality, albeit shot (on 16mm film) in a rather TV set-shaped 4:3 format. Cohn’s paranoia about how the film would eventually be received reduced, in the eyes of the public, a menacing “gem” of the genre to the level of a crude exploitation picture. Modern audiences are of course, held to no such obligation. There is nothing like Shanghai, and once seen it is never forgotten.