The classic film-noir character of the femme-fatale was never a key figure in the films of Orson Welles. His films tended to focus on larger than life characters who led themselves into destruction, but Welles’ off-screen relationship with Rita Hayworth led him to plant her in the very midst of The Lady From Shanghai. In a daring move he had her chop her long, black hair off and bleach it blonde. Suddenly, Rita Hayworth, the great brunette bombshell, is a Hitchcock blonde and she finds herself playing against the Irish world-traveler, Michael O’Hara (Welles). Rather, I suppose, O’Hara finds himself pitted against Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and finds himself losing. O’Hara makes an admission, once he sees Elsa for the first time: “When I start out to make a fool of myself there’s very little can stop me.” He has a one track mind and it is on little else beyond the married woman with whom he finds himself infatuated. O’Hara is, ironically enough, shanghaied into the crew of Elsa Bannister’s husband on their yacht. Mr. Bannister, who is very sick, is one half the law firm Bannister-Grisby. The sexual tension between O’Hara and Elsa Bannister is palpable — very much fueled by their off-screen romance — and Mr. Bannister is painfully and dreadfully aware of it. When Mr. George Grisby, Mr. Bannister’s law partner, asks O’Hara to help him fake his death and take the fall for it as the murderer, O’Hara agrees to do it for a fee of $5,000. Elsa suspects it is a plot by her husband to get rid of O’Hara, but he only wants the money. When Grisby firsts asks him to kill someone, all O’Hara can muster to say is, “I’m particular who I murder.” He cares not that he kills, but only who he kills. Turns out Elsa is wrong, however, and that it is not her husband setting O’Hara up, but Grisby himself.
This flip-flopping of the plot is typical of Welles. He liked to keep his audience guessing, building up themes, trickling out information as needed, and all the while lying to his main character. Similar themes and ideas can be found in Touch of Evil , (1957)wherein the characters play against one another and twist and turn narrative circles around the main story. This movie is no different. Stylistically this movie is far more Hollywood-Welles than it is the later experimental-Welles. The photography, while incredibly inventive and like a whirlwind, is not as dreamy as it is in The Trial (1962) or as loose and experimental as Chimes at Midnight (1965). Well, until the ending sequence anyway, but more on that later. In one scene, when Mr. and Mrs. Bannister are talking together regarding the impending trial of O’Hara for the murder of Mr. Grisby, the camera slowly pushes in toward them over the course of a (probably) two or three minute take. It is hardly the longest single take scene Welles ever did throughout his career, but it is deftly employed here and ramps up the tension admirably. Welles had a knack for these sorts of things though, and loved to push himself by trying to outdo himself. He was not only a great screenwriter, director, and actor, but a great artist and technician altogether. He understood the fundamental things about how the camera-actor-audience relationship worked and he constantly exploited it. His use of framing, art direction, lighting, and camera movement is practically unmatched and it always serves to underpin the psychological ideas running throughout his films.
Somehow this film seems a subversion of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme, but without Hitchcock’s cheekier spin on the material. It might be said that what Hitchcock would make into a rollercoaster ride in North by Northwest (1959), Welles made into a dark and brooding frenzy in The Lady From Shanghai. When O’Hara goes on the run one might see him as a sort of wrong man, akin to Robert Donat or Cary Grant, but one must resist this urge and remember one important detail: O’Hara was willing to kill a man. He never doubted whether or not the act of killing someone was right or wrong, but only wether the act of killing a particular person was right or wrong. Cary Grant goes on the run because he is framed for something he had absolutely nothing to do with, but O’Hara is forced to go on the run because he is a criminal whether he killed this particular man or not. There is no innocence to be found in The Lady From Shanghai. At the end of the film, when Mr. and Mrs. Bannister and O’Hara stand face-to-face-to-face in a carnival house-of-mirrors, and everyone has guns pointed at everyone else, it is impossible to know who shoots who until the dust settles. The shattering of glass, the blasting of guns, and the double and triple images splayed across the screen all act as a mimic of everything seen previous to this final scene: no matter what, it is impossible to know exactly what happens because everything lays over everything else. Just as the narrative has been a thistle bush, so is its resolution.
I suppose if I were to complain of anything in the film, it is a few low-quality inserts which Welles cut into dialogue scenes. It almost seems that he forgot to get a few shots or needed to reshoot a few shots. The scenes in question are clearly shot in front of a rear-projection screen. This effect, when done right, is seamless, but here stands out and quickly draws one out of the scene in question. One scene where rear-projection is done correctly, however, is one set in an aquarium where Welles used the effect to make the fish in the tanks look larger than life. It seems as though they could smash through the glass at any moment and attack O’Hara and Mrs. Bannister. The only other complaint I might raise against the film is Welles’ Irish accent which seems to ebb and flow constantly. At times one would swear he were an Irishman, but at other times he just ends up sounding like one half of Pinky and the Brain (in other words, he just ends up sounding like Orson Welles). This is a bit distracting, but overall didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the movie at all. The Lady from Shanghai is not my favorite Orson Welles movie (I prefer Touch of Evil), but it ranks up there among his films. I highly recommend it watching it.