|'The Lady from Shanghai's' visuals make this Orson Welles film noir memorable, especially those of Rita Hayworth.|
I’d never gone out of my way to see 1948’s The Lady from Shanghai, though I admire Orson Welles’ storytelling style, and adore Rita Hayworth’s electric magnetism. Perhaps reading about the film’s original flop reputation, with Rita criticized as out of her dramatic depth, made me pass this Lady over for decades. The Lady from Shanghai’s reputation has risen over the decades, to the status it enjoys today. Long overdue, I watched Welles’ film noir and was surprised in unexpected ways.
|Orson Welles in a scene that shows his talent for striking visual compositions.|
*Beware, spoilers ahead. The Lady from Shanghai is certainly a mixed bag of cinematic treats. What’s most delectable is the movie’s visual style. Orson Welles takes an already familiar genre and puts his original spin on this film noir spider web. Lady feels like a gorgeous nightmare, filled with huge, sweaty close-ups, off-putting camera angles, and the bizarre juxtaposition of visuals, situations, and dialogue. The villains of this film noir are deliciously over-the-top, and there’s some choice campy dialogue for them to chew on.
On the half-baked side is Welles’ intrusive Irish accent and Orson trying to pigeon-hole his already larger-than-life persona and puffy physique into the standard film noir anti-hero. Also overstuffed is the convoluted story that literally has to be explained by Welles to baffled viewers. Still, The Lady from Shanghai, flaws and all, is spellbindingly watchable.
|That Orson Welles eye: The sailor and the siren tryst at an aquarium, not some ordinary cocktail lounge!|
The Lady from Shanghai is a precursor to Welles’ decade later A Touch of Evil. And both films feel like a later inspiration for David Lynch’s directorial eye. Visually, the movie is a feast of the eye: the ominous aquarium scene, the Chinese opera, and especially, the funhouse and house of mirrors finale, are all memorable. The languorous scenes on the yacht and down Mexico way are sensual, yet with an undercurrent of dread and ennui. However, the courtroom scene is downright silly, complete with a lively Greek chorus and the villainous lawyer who cross-examines himself!
|An Orson Welles action scene means tipping over a bookcase on his opponent...how intellectual!|
Orson Welles' strengths were strongest as a director. I'm always struck by how phony Orson’s film acting could be, full of theatrical accents, wigs, costumes, and wild over-acting. I know that Welles was capable of subtle performing, such as his classic role as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Here, as sailor Michael O’ Hara, his Irish accent inspires laughter, with no relief, from his constant film noir narration. Welles’ brogue is right up there with his unintelligible drawl for The Long, Hot Summer or his Hungarian hamming in The VIPs. Also eyebrow-raising is how often the other characters refer to Orson’s Michael as “big and strong.” I was surprised to read that Welles was over six feet tall, because Orson looks short and fat, and his billowy suits don’t help. The action scenes all involve Welles’ hero, and look cartoonish. The final fight, with Welles tearing apart a judge’s chambers to get away from a burly guard, is downright absurd.
|Everett Sloane is the abrasive, shyster lawyer married to a sultry young woman who disobeys smoking signs.|
Legend has it Orson turned in a 155 minute version of The Lady from Shanghai to Columbia Studios. The final version is just under 90 minutes, which some film folks decry as too bare bones. Well, Laura, perhaps the best film noir ever, clocks in at about the same running time. And Laura’s production was nearly as fraught as Lady. Frankly, the insanely twisted story is Lady’s least interesting aspect, so I can't imagine what another hour would have added. Fun as it would be to see a longer version of the climactic funhouse scene, or the deleted scenes, it’s also not essential to the final film.
|Who's really captain of this ship? Rita's yachting ensemble would make RuPaul green with envy!|
Much like The Big Sleep, it's the atmosphere that keeps viewers enthralled in The Lady from Shanghai. It doesn't have the sly repartee of Sleep, but Lady has some bizarrely memorable lines. And some seem so archly campy that you wonder if this movie is supposed to be a black comedy version of a film noir.
|Glenn Anders in one of his many ominous but oddly hilarious uber close-ups, as Grisby.|
Glenn Anders is fascinating as George Grisby, the villain's drunken partner. His creepy character and delivery of some of the film’s most loony lines are really out there. Lady also features some of the most uncomfortable close-ups ever on film, of Anders’ Grisby, especially as he is tries to intimidate Welles’ sailor stud. Everett Sloane has one of best roles as Bannister, the shady lawyer, who is memorably sinister, yet also pathetic. The shootout showdown with his seductive young wife in the house of mirrors is riveting, but also oddly touching. And one could have a drinking contest over who brays their character’s form of addressing Welles’ sailor or Rita’s siren more: George’s ‘fella’ or Bannister’s ‘lover!’
|One of the most brilliant finales in movie history: the fun house mirrors sequence from 'The Lady from Shanghai.'|
|Rita Hayworth as the seemingly saddest femme fatale in the world.|
I had no doubt that Rita Hayworth would fulfill the female aspects of her femme fatale just fine. However, I was surprised by Rita’s striking performance as Elsa Bannister. Filmed on the heels of her signature role as Gilda, Hayworth is again the mystery woman tied to an older, ominous man, and a younger man drawn into their orbit. Unlike defiant Gilda, Hayworth's Elsa seems incredibly sad and defeated. Elsa seems like the wounded women Rita played after her return to Hollywood in the '50s, after her disastrous marriage to Prince Aly Khan. That steamy sequence on the yacht, with Rita lounging in a swimsuit, driving all the men wild, reminded me of Ava Gardner’s scene later in The Barefoot Contessa, a film loosely based on the life of Hayworth.
|Bang, bang, my hubby shot me down: Rita rocks the stone cold villainy as Elsa Bannister.|
To then see Rita revealed as the stone cold, stone-faced villainess at the finale is a jolt. Hayworth’ performance made me wonder if her acting was that good, or did Orson change the story as he went along—as he was known to do. Either way, Rita is riveting, going from melancholy and mysterious to murderous. The finale, with Rita crawling across the floor, screaming, ‘I don't want to die!’ as Orson walks out the funhouse door, is a stark departure from most '40s movies, even for film noir.
Nobody’s particularly likeable here, typical of film noir, but Orson Welles really pushes the envelope here. Despite the conniving characters and the convoluted plotting, there’s much to admire about this stylish Lady from Shanghai.
|Elsa and Michael soon bid farewell in 'The Lady from Shanghai.' Before the film's release, so did Rita and Orson.|