REVIEW: The Lady from Shanghai [1948]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 87 minutes | Release Date: June 9th, 1948 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director(s): Orson Welles
Writer(s): Orson Welles / Sherwood King (novel If I Die Before I Wake)

“Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us.”

Director Why would Orson Welles work on a studio film again after the debacle of The Lady from Shanghai? The auteur submitted his first film noir on budget only to watch producers chop sixty minutes out and demanded reshoots to add distracting close-ups. I guess that’s the price of casting Rita Hayworth whether she’s your wife or not. The money is in play to see her and if you’ve already bleached and cut her iconic red hair like Welles did, you’re sure as hell going to see her face. Everything else unfortunately just reminds us of what could have been and exactly how it was ruined. Gorgeous wide-angle shots are ripped apart and odd bridge scenes lasting thirty seconds with little plot come out of nowhere. It’s a disaster.

What’s great, though, is that it’s somehow been rebranded a classic. I’ve always heard good things and have had it on my to-watch list for over a decade despite it being a mess. I wonder if people have changed their minds—it was a commercial and critical failure upon release—because they didn’t realize the film they’re hailing as a victory isn’t even Welles’ anymore. He has no directing credit, just a “Screenplay and Production by”. He took his name off, the studio didn’t replace it with another, and a full hour disappeared from the face of the Earth. What remains is a tonally all over the place thriller with hammy performances and an odd, intentionally off-putting humor. “Tell them you were doing a little taaaaarrr-geeet practice …”

This abbreviated edit feels rushed from the get-go as Welles’ Michael O’Hara’s Irish brogue narrates above a quick cut montage of his meeting the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Hayworth). He plays the hero and she swoons, an aloof woman of wealth offering his sailor a job on her yacht. O’Hara is contrarian to a fault but in a way that renders him an intelligent soul who’ll not let lust push him into a situation he’ll regret. He notices things like the two men lurking in the parking garage where Elsa picks up her car (who soon return) and steadfastly rejects her proposal knowing no good can come of it. Yet ten minutes later, after a drunken night with her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane), he’s suddenly their First Mate.

Perhaps time simply hasn’t aged the film well, but Michael O’Hara might be the biggest fool of them all once the story unfolds. His skepticism allows for some great exchanges between Arthur, Bannister’s business partner and wildly over-the-top creeper George Grisby (Glenn Anders), and Elsa whom he slaps in the face when she makes an advance—an appropriate response rendered null and void since he devotes himself to her seconds later—and then disappears. She’s the femme fatale and thus needs to win him over as the world of the elite he bags on every chance he gets consumes him with its web of deceit. A cripple, a crazy, and the helpless young woman caught in between will be the death of him if he lets them.

It’s rapid fire genre shifts from noir to sunny beachside adventure to courtroom drama to fugitive man hunt and neither gets to breathe long enough for the next to make sense. We know there’s something going on once O’Hara’s confession of killing a man piques interest and Grimsby solicits him for a murder-for-hire plot, but what exactly the endgame is and who’s involved is still to be determined. But with the ever shady Broome (Ted de Corsia) lingering and Arthur’s drunken stupors to dull the pain of his legs keeping him incapacitated, we can infer Grimsby is playing a dirty hand. Sadly it gets to the point where I really didn’t care. The only thing keeping my interest from waning completely was the surprising excess of comedy.

Anders’ earns the most laughs thanks to sweaty close-ups of his crazed grin, but the writing—Welles adapted Sherwood King‘s If I Die Before I Wake—supports its own chuckles too. Whether it’s just Welles’ sarcastic demeanor and biting dress-downs of the Bannisters’ financial position or the circus that is the court case of murder (even the judge can’t suppress his chuckles when Arthur simultaneously plays defense attorney and witness on the stand), it’s almost as though William Castle and his producing team wanted the film to be a literal farce. Supposedly Welles intended for much of the black comedy, though, so perhaps the truncated runtime simply distilled relevant laughs way past its point of success. The Lady from Shanghai‘s current form is more joke than noir.

Its saving grace is a fantastic climactic exchange inside an amusement park’s hall of mirrors that’s become legendary in noir history. But even its escalating intrigue of shattered glass portraits jumping from one to the next until the first character falls from bullet is a shadow of its true self. Welles’ version lasted twenty minutes so getting less than five is nothing but a tease. The film’s failure is a shame because Hayworth and Sloane deliver standout performances against Anders’ change-of-pace tonal contrast that grows on you. Welles himself is lacking—and distracting thanks to the accent—but you could forgive such if his vision provided a movie that stood the test of time. The fact that this butchered variant has regardless of its flaws is beyond me.

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