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The Lady from Shanghai

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth

Written and directed by Orson Welles


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Orson Welles was a glorious fraud. As only an egoist raised by an eccentric family can do, Welles moved through his artistic careers with a supreme confidence born of a sort of blind nurturing from those close to him, instilling in him a belief that he would always succeed, even though he may often have not known what the hell he was really doing in every situation. One suspects that beneath his joyful facade there was a lot of guesswork, bluster, impulse, and manipulation going on. As Simon Callow suggested in his biography — only the most recent of several that have come out since Welles' death in 1985 — the tyro-turned-director was adept at getting older men to more or less fall in love with him and mentor him through tight situations and new professional opportunities. However, one thing Welles didunderstand was the theater, and arguably The Lady from Shanghai is one of his most "theatrical" films, even if 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. The only other Welles film with as extreme a visual style is Touch of Evil.

The Lady from Shanghai, based on a 1938 novel called If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, is one of those complicated noirs like The Big Sleep 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 (Welles's estranged wife 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, a sort of cross-eyed '40s version of comedian Larry Miller). Grisby wants to pay O'Hara to kill him (not really, but it's best to see the movie and learn the details). Events take a turn for the complex when Grisby dies anyway and O'Hara is put on trial for the crime, defended by Bannister, which allows the wheelchair-bound lawyer 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's 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, which to a certain degree one could argue that Welles invented in Citizen Kane. In addition, it's curious to be reminded of how much the film may have influenced Steven Spielberg: O'Hara tells a long story about sharks, and a shot of the Bannisters' yacht framed though the mullions of a window is echoed years later in a similar shot in Jaws that Spielberg (a fan of framing within the frame) did of the Orca leaving the bay on its deadly pursuit. But even on its own terms, The Lady from Shanghai is a good film, and 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, at which Welles excelled with both travelogue style footage and studio shots, is invigorating.

There is only one problem with all this: The Lady from Shanghai is more a Columbia film than a Welles film. Once again, as we learn in both the 20-minute featurette interview with Peter Bogdanovich and in Bogdanovich's audio commentary on this disc, the original film was two and a half hours long but was cut down to under 90 minutes by a studio flunkie, and additionally burdened with what Welles viewed as a terrible, cartoonish score. Welles wrote a nine-page memo in protest to Columbia founder Harry Cohn, which was ignored. Bogdanovich reads from the memo on his audio commentary, and it is a fascinating document. In fact, Welles ends up being the best reviewer of the finished product. Among the other things "wrong" with the film is that, because the film was found to be too hard to follow, the studio insisted that Welles provide a narration given in the O'Hara character, much the way Harrison Ford had to provide a "claryifying" naration in the original Blade Runner, with the result that Welles' rather bad, but at least comical, Irish accent is heard much more than originally intended. In any case, the consequence is (once again) a Welles film that is not the one he envisioned, comprising in some cases even different takes than the one he would have chosen. Thus, given the The Lady from Shanghai's compromised history, does the viewer have the right to revere the movie as a great example of film noir? Actually, yes, at least when the presentation is as good as the one on this disc. 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 created by three different cinematographers, and with few discernible defects beyond minor scratches and other markings on the source print at the beginning and end of reel changes. The audio is in the original mono and extras include the (rather scratchy) theatrical trailer plus three other "bonus" trailers, meager talent files solely on Welles and Hayworth, and about nine posters and lobby cards, most of them fine looking, in a vintage advertising file.

A few words about the audio commentary and the Bogdanovich featurette. They are redundant. If you watch one you don't have to listen to the other, and vice versa. Bogdanovich tells exactly the same stories in each. However, as a friend of Welles who conducted an extensive interview with him, and as both a writer and a director, Bogdanovich brings passion and a well-observed sense of moviemaking's myriad difficulties to his discussion, which focuses more on Welles and his legacy than on the specific film itself. Curiously, Bogdanovich reads from the transcript of his interview with Welles on Shanghai, rather than playing the original audio recording he has, but no matter — it's still valuable information. Among other things, Bogdanovich quotes Welles in such a way as to suggest that the genius filmmaker was often making it up as he went along, but that, being a genius, his often naive guesses, his ego-driven, tear-it-up approach to filmmaking, just happened to work. What a lucky accident for Welles fans like us.

— D. K. Holm



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