Written and directed by Orson Welles
Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is an Irish émigré to the United States who earns his income as a sailor. Walking the streets of Manhattan one night, he comes across the carriage of one Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), whose beauty and charm immediately catch his eye. After rescuing her from a group of thieves in Central Park, he offers to drive her home, during which time they grow fond of one another. Lo and behold, the next day, Mr. Bannister (Everett Sloane), a notorious criminal lawyer and her husband, makes an offer: come sail with them through the Americas on their way to San Francisco. O’Hara, clearly attracted to the man’s wife but trepidatious about potential complications, reluctantly accepts the offer. The trip and its aftermath in San Francisco prove unforgettable, with everyone’s disdain for Mr. Bannister coming to light, especially that of his law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who makes O’Hara the preposterous offer of killing him for $5,000.
The history behind The Lady from Shanghai’s production is one that should be familiar to those who have read up on Orson Welles’ professional career pre-1960. It also speaks to the unmistakably idiosyncratic way in which the auteur went about bringing his visions to the screen and the battles he endured along the way. The only reason why Welles agreed to write and direct the picture in the first place was to return a favour for Columbia Pictures president Henry Cohn once the latter helped Welles finalize the funding for a stage play of Around the World in Eighty Days. As was frequently the case when Welles presented a supposedly finished version of his films to executives, the reception was cold to the point that extensive reshoots from assistant directors were ordered. Contrary to popular belief, Welles completed the entire filmmaking process on time and under budget, but the reshoots eventually negated that accomplishment.
What remains certainly contains material that Welles never intended to include originally, yet it is still difficult to imagine that The Lady from Shanghai is not the work of the uniquely talented writer-director. The film that can most closely be alluded to as its spiritual brethren is Touch of Evil, another movie tampered by nervous studio bosses. Both films feature a plethora of off-kilter scenes for which the tone is infuriatingly hard to discern. Is what transpired supposed to taken as comedy? If so, is it supposed to be light or dark humour? Why are there scenes in which multiple characters are speaking at once, rendering various bits of dialogue as gibberish (one presumes, or hopes rather, that said pieces of dialogue are those carrying less importance)? Additionally, the more recognizably noir-ish elements do not come into play until at least the halfway mark. The first 45 minutes or so is all set-up, with character relationships developed, explored, and turned on their heads. Motivations are hinted at with nothing terribly definitive ever established. The cruise around the American continents eats up a lot of running time and offers a multitude of aforementioned scenes peppered with bizarre twists of humour.
Once Grisby, exasberated by his partnership with the disagreeable Bannister, offers O’Hara the job of helping Grisby to fake his death, enabling the latter to pocket a large sum of money and live of an island somewhere in the south, the plot looks to kick in with something that would satisfy less adventurous palettes. Welles, however, has other plans in store, elaborating on the ridiculous scheme (which is somehow not supposed to land O’Hara in jail) for only a short span, followed by a courtroom scene that borders on utter madness and hilarity, concluding the entire affair with the now-famous sequence, albeit a version shortened at the behest of Columbia, of O’Hara meeting the real evildoers in a hall of mirrors.
Where does that leave the movie? Of equal interest, where does that leave the viewer? For about 45 minutes, it feels like not much happens, followed by a second 45-minute stretch in which practically everything happens. Even for fans of Welles’ work, The Lady from Shanghai is difficult to process and digest. That said, it is nearly impossible to look away, even during the supposedly more boring first half. The film is ostensibly a cracked-up version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Yes, the young lovers from completely different backgrounds try to stir something up behind the back of the female protagonist’s older husband, but there are several tangential characters who complicate matters with hidden agendas, some of which inject moments that, tonally, are completely different.
Welles has a knack of juggling diametrically opposed elements in his movies in such a way that they end of oddly complementing each other. Truth be told, the backroom murder plot is so bonkers, from its concept to the notion that it could be pulled off in such a way as to allow O’Hara to get away scot-free, that when it goes awry and the protagonist finds himself accused of Grisby’s actual murder, why would Mr. Bannister not be the one to defend him, especially after deducing that the defendant and his wife are having an affair? The courtroom scene is absurd, with Bannister playing his role of attorney as a clown rather than a professional lawyer. Even the jury and judge (Erskine Sanford) are laughing it up. The pleasure of digging in to The Lady from Shanghai is partly to discover what folly might happen next.
Despite it all, there is a hardnosed cynicism to the picture that keeps the entire endeavor firmly tethered in noir territory. This attitude is particularly noticeable in the first half, when O’Hara, already something of a disillusioned fellow, comes to learn of how unhealthy Mr. Bannister’s influence on his wife, working colleagues, and employees is. The brilliance of the sequence is that the group is travelling the heavenly Caribbean islands as well as various hot spots around Latin America. The beauty of the locales and the warmth of the sun are constantly overshadowed by the reality that ill intentions are brewing just under the surface. However romantic and charming the places they visit, the trip is plagued by a discernable discomfort on the part of just about everyone save Mr. Bannister, who distastefully behaves like the king of his and everybody else’s hill.
What can be professed of the picture’s final 10 minutes that has not already been written or said? Praised for its visual bravura, the carnival setting is, exactly like everything that came before, unexpected yet ends up making sense. Not only have most of the principal characters played games with one another, the tone of the film has bordered on outright comedy half the time. As such, why not end it all ironically with dead seriousness and brutal violence in a fun house? Welles is employing unorthodox methods to tell a familiar tale of love and revenge: use the nonsensical to make sense of the recklessness of human nature.
Whether or not Welles succeeds is up to the viewer to decide. The Lady from Shanghai has been praised just as it has been thrashed. The most infuriating aspect to watching and analyzing the picture is that, notwithstanding a miracle, the studio-tampered version is the only one available to the public. Is the film this bizarre because of what Columbia did after the original shoot or did they make an utter mess somewhat comprehensible? A fascinating debate to be sure, sadly one for which the answer may be lost in the sands of time. That said, at least for the experience, The Lady from Shanghai is a must-see.
— Edgar Chaput