The Lady from Shanghai
Orson Welles moved through his artistic careers with the supreme confidence that he would always succeed, even though he may often have been bluffing. But one thing Welles didunderstand was the theater, and The Lady from Shanghai arguably is one of his most "theatrical" films. But the theatricality is all in the visuals. Extreme close-ups, acute angles, moody lighting, wide-angle lenses all form the visual equivalent of live theater's wild flourishes and to-the-rafters style. Based on a 1938 novel called If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, The Lady from Shanghai is one of those complicated noirs that nevertheless makes sense as you coast along with the film because you are aligned with the viewpoint of the main character. In this case it is Michael O'Hara, played by Welles himself. Seduced by beautiful, blond Elsa Banister (Rita Hayworth) in New York City, O'Hara is taken on as a shipmate when Elsa and her husband, powerful attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) take a yacht cruise through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. O'Hara is thus thrust into a consortium of odd characters, each with a hidden agenda. One of those is Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby wants to pay O'Hara to kill him, and events take a turn for the complex when Grisby indeed dies and O'Hara is put on trial for the crime, represented by Bannister, which allows the attorney to learn that O'Hara and Elsa had an affair of sorts. The film culminates in the famous multi-mirrored, fun-house shoot-out, which is one of those sequences that always gets anthologized as an example of fine or flashy editing. Odd, the aesthetic preëminence of that sequence, given that The Lady from Shanghai, according to all sources, lost money and damaged Welles' career (Welles, by the way, denied both charges). Today, however, we can see that The Lady from Shanghai is simply a lot of fun, and, shot in 1946 but released two years later, clearly an important and influential entry in the more realistic looking, location-shot noir style. But even on its own terms, The Lady from Shanghai is a good film: its reputation for being chaotic is overrated. Hayworth is luminous, and Sloan and Anders, among other character actors, give very good performances. The blend of location-work with travelogue-style footage and studio shots is invigorating. Columbia TriStar's DVD edition, part of their "Columbia Classics" series, comes in a wonderful full-screen (1.33:1) black-and-white transfer, which beautifully captures the rich, moody noir photography with few discernible defects beyond minor scratches and other markings on the source print at the beginning and end of reel changes, and with audio in the original mono (DD 2.0). Also on board is the (rather scratchy) theatrical trailer plus three other "bonus" trailers, meager talent files solely on Welles and Hayworth, and a vintage advertising file. Peter Bogdanovich's audio commentary and a featurette interview with him, while valuable, are redundant if you watch one, you don't have to listen to the other, and vice versa, as Bogdanovich tells exactly the same stories in each. However, as writer, director, and a friend of Welles who conducted an extensive interview with him, Bogdanovich brings passion and a well-observed sense of moviemaking's myriad difficulties to his discussion. Keep-case.