Next week is Orson Welles’ birthday centennial (May 6th) and this website is going to be chock full of Welles tributes. But, let’s start the party early with his 1948 noir The Lady from Shanghai (next week will be Touch of Evil). You either love it or leave it when it comes to this film. If you remember anything from The Lady from Shanghai, it is the climactic hall of mirrors scene at the end of the film. Welles was seven years removed from Citizen Kane when he wrote The Lady from Shanghai and as I write, I am 68 years removed from the film and it continues to be as divisive as ever. Film critic and Welles biographer David Thompson feels The Lady of Shanghai is one of Welles lesser works. I disagree. This is an underrated film which should garner more consideration. So, let’s put on the boxing gloves and duke it out.
Long and convoluted story short: During a stroll in Central Park, the rouge sailor Michael “Black Irish” O’Hara (Welles) saves the champagne blond Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from being robbed. They get on talking; as boys and girls tend to do during a romantic warm night in the city. She’s married, of course, but offers him a job to keep him close. He refuses. Her husband, the crippled Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), one of the best criminal lawyers in the world—the movie doesn’t let you forget that—offers O’Hara a job on his yacht and after a few drinks at the nearby bar O’Hara takes the job.
The Circe—the yacht used was owned by Errol Flynn and christened the Zaca—carries O’Hara and the Bannisters by the way of the Panama Canal to Acapulco. George Grisby (Glenn Anders), Bannister’s law partner catches up with the yacht. The Bannisters sharpen their teeth and encircle O’Hara in a feeding frenzy of lies and manipulation and are ready to use O’Hara for their own amusement or gain. Grisby hatches a plot that will rid him of Bannister.
Once docked in Sausalito Bay, Grisby offers O’Hara $5,000 to pretend to kill him, or at least take the fall for the murder by signing a confession. Grisby explains that he is going to fake his death and take the insurance money. O’Hara won’t be convicted in an absence of a dead Grisby. The plan goes awry from the start when Grisby shoots one of Bannister’s watchdogs, Broome, who’s wise to Grisby’s scheme. Before he dies he warns of Grisby’s true intentions; to kill Bannister and run away with Elsa. O’Hara arrives at Bannister’s office, only to find that Grisby is dead. O’Hara is tried for murder, represented by Bannister and is convicted, but escapes, faking a suicide attempt by swallowing Bannister’s pain medication and runs into a Chinatown Theater. Elsa pursues him. O’Hara reveals to Elsa that he knows that she killed Grisby after which O’Hara falls down unconscious and awakens in an abandoned amusement park. O’Hara later reunites with Elsa in the hall of mirrors where she unravels and tries to explain herself only to be interrupted by Bannister. A shootout ensures. Elsa and Arthur Bannister die, while O’Hara walks alone out into the emptiness of the amusement park.
Orson Welles had been on a downslope ever since the gala opening of Citizen Kane on May 1st 1941 at the RKO Palace in New York City. The film had been ahead of its time and audiences didn’t get it; as a result Citizen Kane flopped. Welles’s follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons was butchered by studio execs while Welles was in Mexico for a lecture tour to align with the US during WWII. Welles returned to radio and New York Theater wooing Rita Hayworth into becoming the second Mrs. Welles. When he was offered to adapt the Sherwood King novel, If I Die Before I Wake, the couple had been estranged for some time. Using his power of persuasion Welles convinced Hayworth to jump aboard the production. The red-headed goddess and pin-up girl had just come off the successful noir, Gilda. With Hayworth in the picture, the budget skyrocketed from $350,000 to $2 million.
The end result was a film that left the audience nonplused and barely made half its budget back. Today it has garnered admirers and several critics. Cinema, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. This voyeur believes that many have not given the film enough credit or attention. There are many subtleties that lend themselves to making The Lady of Shanghai a nuanced noir, one that is aware of the visual and thematic tropes of film-noir and linking them to the larger Welles oeuvre.
What was the first film-noir? The answer is unknowable. Especially since the definition of what makes a film-noir is so malleable. Is it character archetypes, style, setting etc.? Many critics look to gangster films as proto-noir. They have the guns, the grittiness, and the moral degradation. There is another film that deserves to be included, one that was made by an upstart from Kenosha, Illinois. The film lost $150,000 in its initial run, and pissed off a newspaper tycoon.
Citizen Kane foreshadowed many film-noirs. So, it should not come as a surprise that Welles went on to direct numerous others (The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkaden, Touch of Evil) and star in one of the most renowned noirs, The Third Man. Alain Silver and James Ursini’s The Noir Style point to Kane as a benchmark in the formulation of the noir visual look: Welles use of deep focus, keeping objects that are near and far from the camera in focus; the positioning of actors in the frame to communicate dominance of certain characters or highlight objects. Citizen Kane also prefigures the moral degradation of many of noirs anti-heroes or villains; Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil for one example.
It would be ill-informed to say that Welles was not aware of the visual and thematic motifs that run through any film-noir when principal photography began in May, 1946. In the first scene of The Lady of Shanghai we are introduced to two of our main characters, Elsa Bannister and Michael O’Hara. Elsa is placed serenely in a horse drawn carriage, wearing a white dotted dress as O’Hara approaches her. Hayworth’s usual red hair is dyed blond. Two major film-noirs were released in 1946. Gilda, starred Hayworth as an auburn haired temptress abused by men, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The bleached hair and white dress can be seen as homage to Lana Turner’s femme fatale in The Postman Always Rings Twice and a visual warning to viewers. As in The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Lady of Shanghai, Turner and Hayworth wear white throughout both films. The blond hair also telegraphs the drastic moral change between Gilda and Elsa Bannister. In another scene Elsa drives past the Brocklebank Apartments in San Francisco; the same building that Kim Novak is seen leaving and entering by James Stewart in Vertigo. Albeit Hitchcock’s voyeuristic masterpiece is a decade in the future, but I guess great minds think alike.
Welles, like Hitchcock used rear projection for more detailed lighting in place of shooting on location, where lighting is variable. Director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr. and Welles used lighting to subvert audiences’ feeling toward Elsa Bannister. The audience trusts her. Hayworth’s subtle performance helps. She rarely emotes. She is like a mirror projecting Welles’s feelings for her back to the audience; the inversion of the Kuleshov effect.
Mercury Theater stalwart Everett Sloane portrays the vile and manipulative Arthur Bannister. The key to Bannister is that he knows about the plot against his life; Broome alerts him to it in Acapulco. The rest of the film is Bannister toying with everyone and watching Grisby and Elsa’s plan fall apart for his own amusement. Glenn Anders over the top performance as George Grisby sticks with you.
Many believe that the absurd comedy in O’Hara’s trial is out of place and misjudged. On the contrary, the comedy is a well needed release from the tension of the film, and a contrast with the dark and emotional finale in the amusement park. Directors of film-noir are not above using humor to offset the dark narrative of the movie. For example: Billy Wilder’s use of the bizarre monkey funeral in Sunset Blvd., or Joe Grandi’s unfettered toupee in Touch of Evil.
The finale in the fun house is memorable for its unique visuals and the emotion released during the final moments. O’Hara awakes in the fun house and makes his way through trap doors, and slides to the hall of mirrors all the way explaining Elsa’s plot to kill her husband. The convoluted plot matches the German expressionistic absurdity of O’Hara surroundings. The final confrontation between Elsa and Arthur Bannister reveal the true nature of their close guarded personalities. Arthur reveals that he has the bravura of a powerful man, but is nothing more than a pathetic man. Elsa is scarred and helpless and as she lies dying after the shootout, she only thinks of the future that will never come, “give my regards to the sunrise.”