The Lady from Shanghai
1948: Orson Welles
Unrated – 87 minutes
Vault Rating: 7
Seldom has a camera so loved the face of its leading lady the way Orson Welles’ camera loved Rita Hayworth in today’s feature, “The Lady from Shanghai.”
“Shanghai” stands up as a decent early film noir, though Welles’ later “The Third Man” or “A Touch of Evil” are much better.
Ms. Hayworth was the original pin-up girl coming out of World War II and, in order to play against her type in the title role, she cut her famous hair and bleached it blonde to an alarmingly alluring effect. There are shots in this feature where you just have to hit pause and study the frame awhile.
Welles portrays a badly accented Irish sailor, Mike O’Hara, in New York City who stumbles upon “Rosalie” Bannister in a horse-drawn carriage. He proceeds on a Rosalie speech that reminds in a dull way of the Kate speech from “The Taming of the Shrew,” and signals the battle of wits to come. Despite the fact that Rosalie hasn’t even given O’Hara her real name (Elsa), sparks do fly.
When O’Hara saves her from a mugging, he’s smitten with her, despite the revelation that she’s already the wife of an infamous criminal lawyer.
“Personally, I don’t like a girlfriend to have a husband,” remarks O’Hara, even while he’s being lured aboard the Bannister’s private yacht as a crewman. “If she’ll fool a husband, she’ll fool me.”
O’Hara is thus drawn into a world of greed and ugliness. Elsa, to use what is now a cliche, is a woman with a past who’s looking to secure her future. In that, she’s not much different than her husband, Arthur, a cripple who seems to have the intellectual drop on just about everybody around him. Neither is she much different than Arthur’s strangely oily law partner, George Grisby, who’s convoluted plan for murder couldn’t have been more distracting.
Like all good noir, it is hard to tell who’s fooling whom in this picture.
When the cast is sequestered on a yacht during a steamy trip through the tropics, we are afforded more opportunities to ogle Ms. Hayworth. While that’s all well and good, the plot here merely develops rather than simmering like it should. Welles, in telling his crime story, a kind of triple-cross, might have done better to simplify.
Roman Polanski nicely exploited the tension of two men and a woman on a boat in 1962 with “Knife in the Water.” Polanski’s “Knife” did more with far less flash in a tiny little set piece.
But it is also instructive to consider that Welles’ finished version had an hour chopped out of it over his objections. The overall effect, then, is a bit streaky with some notable moments.
Of course, the house of mirrors finale is a brilliant flourish. Such is Welles’ signature. But I think this sequence, if not the whole film, is more about the director, himself. Welles, after all, did find himself in a California life where he was surrounded by toads and creeps, money and lawyers. Even Ms. Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, whose marriage to Welles was strained at the time of this film, is presented here as having a magnificent facade.
I think I get Welles’ drift and I have the opinion that we’ve suffered a reel loss in that hour of film left on the cutting room floor. Welles must have had something bigger to say about Hollywood and about himself. But for the meddling of small minded studio suits, we might have had a towering personal film to rival even “Citizen Kane.”
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