The Lady from Shanghai – hallucinatory, baffling, sinister, brilliant, twisted. All of those adjectives apply to this flawed masterpiece by one of cinema’s great magicians. Or, in the words of Dave Kehr, the weirdest great movie ever made.
The Lady from Shanghai has become something of a cult for movie buffs, particularly for connoisseurs of film noir. It’s full of originality, strangeness and atmosphere. But the film we see today is very different from the one that Orson Welles, its writer, director, producer and co-star, envisioned. And the story behind it has enough twists and turns to form the basis of a movie in its own right.
If you’ve never seen the movie, now’s the time to find out what you’ve been missing. If you have a blu-ray player, try to get hold of the Mill Creek Entertainment transfer.
Spoiler Alert!!! Let’s begin with the main characters and the plot of the film itself. So, stop reading now if you’ve never seen The Lady from Shanghai and want to watch it without knowing the plot in advance.
The Lady from Shanghai – characters, plot and things to look out for
There are five main protagonists in The Lady from Shanghai:
- Michael O’Hara, an unemployed freelance sailor who acts as the film’s narrator. Orson Welles cast himself in the role, assuming a less-than-convincing Irish accent. For all that, his wistful voice-over imbues the film with a sense of overwhelming sadness, world-weariness and resignation.
- Elsa Bannister, the drop-dead gorgeous lady from Shanghai with a murky past and a great deal on her mind. This role marked a radical departure from those previously played by Rita Hayworth.
- Arthur Bannister, Elsa’s husband whose brilliant legal mind is in stark contrast with his pitiful, crippled body. He’s played with “hawk-like malevolence” by Mercury Player Everett Sloane, who made his screen debut in Citizen Kane. And indeed Arthur Bannister, like Charles Foster Kane, is full of despair despite his success.
- George Grisby, Arthur Bannister’s sweaty, bulging-eyed, leering legal partner, obsessed with the atom bomb and the end of the world. He has a habit of calling people “fella,” presumably a reference to Nelson Rockefeller, who had recruited Welles to create It’s All True (a film comprising three stories about Latin America), only to terminate the project before it came to fruition. Glenn Anders’ performance in the role all but steals the show.
- Sidney Broome, a private detective hired by Arthur Bannister to spy on Elsa. This marked Ted de Corsia’s screen debut and he went on to play a number of villains in movies including Jules Dassin’s terrific The Naked City (1948).
The Lady from Shanghai has a tortuous, labyrinthine storyline. At the beginning, it’s easy to follow. But as the film moves towards its shattering (literally!) climax, the intrigue careers out of control, piling plot-twist on plot-twist. Perhaps things would have been spelled out more clearly had the film not been cut by an hour and subjected to numerous retakes and edits. But even before that happened… after the preview showing, Harry Cohn, Columbia’s president, offered to pay anyone in the room US$1,000 if they could explain the storyline. So perhaps it was always Welles’ intention to take his audience for a ride.
The following sequence of stills should help you to make sense of the plot. The synopsis in the captions draws on a much longer and rather brilliant one at Filmsite.org.
Note: stills 5 and 8 have been cropped from portrait to landscape format so as not to disrupt the grid.
One of The Lady from Shanghai’s most striking aspects is its cinematography – in particular its use of wide-angle lenses to caricature faces, notably those of Grisby and Bannister; startling camera angles (such as the vertiginous vantage point along the coast from which we see Grisby explain his plot to Michael); and deep focus, which disorients the viewer by giving equal weight to foregrounds and backgrounds. There are also many virtuoso passages. Five of the most remarkable are:
- The cruise with its sweltering, claustrophobic, voyeuristic atmosphere and the allusions to Elsa’s siren character via the name of the yacht (Circe) and the shots of her reclining on the rocks and singing.
- The picnic in the jungle with its air of doom, desire and venom, culminating in Michael’s extraordinary speech:
Do you know, once off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black, and the sun fadin’ away over the lip of the sky. We put in at Fortaleza. A few of us had lines out for a bit of idle ﬁshin’. It was me had the ﬁrst strike. A shark it was, and then there was another and another shark again, till all about the sea was made of sharks, and more sharks still, and the water tall. My shark had torn himself away from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleedin’ his life away, drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eatin’ each other; in their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stingin’ your eyes, and you could smell the death, reekin’ up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse, until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.
- The aquarium, which provides such a disconcerting setting for Michael’s clandestine meeting with Elsa.
- The outrageous court scene, which makes a hilarious mockery of the legal system.
- The Fun House and Hall of Mirrors that Welles created for the film’s dénoement.
The Lady from Shanghai – how it came about
In 1945 Welles found himself in a predicament:
I was working on Around the World in 80 Days [a stage musical based on the Jules Verne novel] and we found ourselves in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to get the costumes from the station because $50,000 was due and our producer, Mr. Todd, had gone broke. Without that money we couldn’t open. I called Harry Cohn [head of Columbia Studios] in Hollywood…”
According to Welles, he made the call from a drugstore and when Cohn asked him what the film would be about, he grabbed a novel from a nearby shelf and read out the synopsis on the back. However, Welles was a master of creating his own mythology and the truth is a bit more prosaic. The film is based on Sherwood King’s novel, If I Die Before I Wake. Years earlier, producer William Castle had sold the movie rights to Columbia on the condition that he would be involved should a film be made. He subsequently produced a treatment and set it to Welles, who responded:
About If I Should Die – I love it … I have been searching for an idea for a film, but none presented itself until If I Should Die and I could play the lead and Rita Hayworth could play the girl. I won’t present it to anybody without your OK. The script should be written immediately. Can you start working on it at night?
But why did Harry Cohn go along with the idea, given that at the time Welles was pretty much persona non-grata in Hollywood. Citizen Kane (1941) had done a pretty effective character assassination job on newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, setting Welles up as a threat to the establishment. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) had gone over budget and failed to recoup its investment. It’s All True was terminated before completion and never saw the light of day. Welles went some way to redeeming his credibility with The Stranger (1946), which came in under budget and proved a modest commercial success.
Perhaps Cohn felt that for the money Welles wanted it was a risk worth taking. Or perhaps he didn’t want to upset Hayworth, his biggest star, by turning down her husband even though the marriage was on the rocks. Besides, the pairing of Welles and Hayworth as the leads could be an intriguing prospect for audiences.
The Lady from Shanghai – Welles’ ambition
The first thing Welles did was have Hayworth’s trademark long red hair bobbed and dyed “topaz blonde.” And he made it into a media event, inviting the press to come along and witness the makeover for themselves. It was not what Harry Cohn had in mind for his biggest star and he was furious. In spite of that, the studio released a whole series of shots of the event to the press.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons (who had it in for Welles ever since he parodied her boss, William Randolph Hearst, in Citizen Kane) claimed that with The Lady from Shanghai he had deliberately and maliciously set out to destroy Rita Hayworth’s career. She then asserted that Welles was “washed up.”
It’s difficult to know what impelled Welles to such a controversial move. He may well have felt ambivalent, even vindictive, about his marriage, and there’s certainly a case to be made for seeing the whole movie as a misogynistic, not to say toxic, farewell to Hayworth. And yet… Is Elsa nothing more than a cold-blooded, scheming femme fatale? It’s tempting to jump to that conclusion. But it’s also possible to see her, like Gilda, as a victim – a woman in a man’s world who’s been exploited her whole life and who is now so desperate she’s prepared to take matters into her own hands.
Back to the haircut and it’s likely that, however he felt about his marriage, with his director’s hat on Welles saw the need for a completely new look that would disassociate Hayworth in audiences’ minds from her previous roles. It was an early symptom of the way in which Cohn’s and Welles’ ambitions for the movie diverged. Cohn was looking for a box-office hit. Welles wanted to produce “something off-center, queer, strange,” according to a memo he sent Cohn, by giving the film a nightmarish feel and striving for performances that were “original, or at least oblique
Characteristically, Welles was hugely ambitious for the film. For the opening scene, set in Central Park, he planned the longest dolly shot ever filmed. involving huge arc lights, a sound boom and a 20-foot camera crane, which followed Elsa Bannister’s carriage for nearly a mile. That was just the beginning. He also planned to shoot most of the film on location, something pretty much unheard of in Hollywood at the time since seemingly every cinematic need could be catered for by the vast studio lots and soundstages. For Welles that would have been just too obvious and easy. Plus, shooting on location would have been a great way of escaping Cohn’s surveillance – the mogul bugged Welles’ office at Columbia, as he had Glenn Ford’s dressing room when Gilda was being filmed.
And then there were the sets and set pieces, the two most celebrated being the Fun House (a great set for a fashion shoot – Rita’s wardrobe is by Jean Louis) and the Hall of Mirrors. The inspiration for the former were the expressionist images of the German silent movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). According to Rob Nixon:
Stephen Goosson designed an elaborate set with sliding doors, distorting mirrors and a 125-foot zigzag slide from the roof of a studio sound stage down into a pit that was 80 feet long, 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep. For one shot simulating Welles’ point of view as he hurtled down the slide, Lawton and camera operator Irving Klein slid the entire length of it on their stomachs with the camera on a mat. The director himself spent more than a week from 10:30 at night until 5 in the morning painting the set.
The Hall of Mirrors was designed with the help of special effects wizard Lawrence Butler and contained almost 3,000 square feet of glass. Some of the mirrors were two-way, others had holes through which the camera crew could shoot
When it came to cinematography, Welles and his director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr, decided to use low-key interior lighting and natural light wherever possible. For outdoor skies and transitions between outdoor and indoor scenes they employed filters. And they exploited wide-angle lenses to lend distortion to close-ups. Shooting on board a yacht was always going to be a challenge – the sort of thing Welles loved. So he and Lawton did a series of experimental test shoots to determine how to deal with the problem of over-exposure – the light meters struggled to cope with the glare of the sea and sky. They also turned the lack of space on the yacht to their advantage by creating cramped, claustrophobic compositions. And for the aquarium scene they got seriously tricksy. First they shot the fish-tanks separately. Then they enlarged the resulting film and used it as the background for the close-ups of Michael and Elsa, making the sea creatures appear super-size and super-sinister.
The Lady from Shanghai – a disaster in the making
Shooting began in autumn 1946 in locations including Acapulco, San Francisco and New York as well as Columbia Studios – for details and photos take a look at Reel SF. For the Acapulco shoot, which took more than 35 days, Welles rented Errol Flynn’s yacht, and Columbia sent 40 technicians and more than six tons of equipment.
Even under the most favourable circumstances, the location shoot was never going to be straightforward. The jungle picnic scenes were filmed close to a crocodile-infested river. Poisonous barnacles had to be scraped off the rock from which Elsa dives into the ocean. A spear-wielding Mexican swimming champion had to be employed to swim off-camera to protect Hayworth from deadly barracuda.
But it was as if the shoot was cursed. In Mexico, the cast and crew were plagued by problems, many of them detailed by producer William Castle in his diary. During the day, the temperature was sweltering. At night, clouds of poisonous insects swarmed around the arc lights, sometimes rendering them useless. Histamine poisoning from an insect bite caused such swelling to one of Welles’ eyes that he couldn’t open it. And half the crew went down with dysentery. Meanwhile, Hayworth was sick throughout the shoot, collapsing both In Mexico and in San Francisco, and halting production for a month.
Worst of all, on the first day of shooting, assistant cameraman Donald Ray Cory, working bareheaded in the blazing sun, had a heart attack and died. Rumour has it that Errol Flynn, who insisted on captaining his boat and was regularly drunk and abusive, wanted the body dumped into the ocean in a duffle bag. The crew ignored him, discreetly put the corpse ashore and hushed the incident up.
And then there were problems Welles brought on himself by his way of working. He would rewrite the script from day to day so everyone ended up confused. And as a director he would give his actors a hard time. Sometimes he deliberately upset them to get nervous, edgy performances. Other times he would cause them to forget their lines and improvise on the spot. By all accounts, it was not a happy project.
Welles never viewed the rushes; he just shipped them straight off to Columbia. There they were reviewed by Viola Lawrence, the studio’s chief editor. As a firm advocate of using close-ups and highlighting actors’ eyes to convey drama and emotion, she was horrified to discover that the rushes contained no close-up shots of Hayworth. She reported this to Cohn, who sent orders to rectify this. On location, Welles refused to do so. Back on the studio lot, he caved in. On Cohn’s orders, he also added the scene of Elsa singing on the yacht.
The Lady from Shanghai – from bad to worse
The rough cut of the film was based on an editing concept outlined by Welles. It ran approximately 155 minutes. But Welles’ contract with Columbia left it up to the studio to decide who would edit the final cut. Their choice was Lawrence, who had previously worked on Rita Hayworth vehicles Cover Girl and Tonight and Every Night, and would go on to work on Down to Earth, Affair in Trinidad, Salome, Miss Sadie Thompson and Pal Joey.
Taking her orders from Cohn, she cut about 55 minutes from the movie, including the opening dolly shot in Central Park, much of the Chinese opera sequence and most of the Fun House scene – all highlights of the original concept; the fashion shoot above shows just how weird and wonderful the set was). Quite apart from the damage done to the storyline, the continuity of Welles’ long takes was disrupted by the insertion of close-ups, and the result is a bewildering hotchpotch. Welles accepted some responsibility for the fiasco but pushed most of the blame onto Lawrence’s editing.
What he was most upset about was what became of the soundtrack. He’d wanted to use sound to unsettle the audience – for example by fading in voices so quietly that viewers would have to strain to make out what was being said. Traces of what he intended are evident in the grating voices of Bannister and Grisby and the final dialogue in the Hall of Mirrors.
After the success of the songs, Amado Mio and Put the Blame on Mame in Gilda, Cohn insisted on retrofitting a song into The Lady from Shanghai. The result was Please Don’t Kiss Me, commissioned from the same team – Alan Roberts and Doris Fisher (with Hayworth’s singing voice once again dubbed by Anita Ellis). The song itself is a class act. What absolutely isn’t is the way in which it is exploited as the background track for pretty much the entire movie, replacing the original score by George Antheil. Welles was incensed:
The only idea which seems to have occurred to this present composer is the rather weary one of using a popular song – the “theme – in as many arrangements as possible. Throughout we have musical references to “Please Don’t Kiss Me” for almost every bridge and also for a great deal of the background material. The tune is pleasing, it may do very well on the Hit Parade — but Lady from Shanghai is not a musical comedy.
The Lady from Shanghai – from box office failure to cult
When The Lady from Shanghai was completed in 1946 Columbia got cold feet. They were worried that it would bomb at the box office and anxious to protect Hayworth’s image. So they chose to hold it until after they’d released Down To Earth (1947) – a much more commercial movie. The Lady from Shanghai ran first in Europe (1947), where it was generally well received, before finally opening in the US in 1948, seven months after Welles and Hayworth were divorced. The studio did nothing to push the film, allowing it to be shown as the bottom half of double bills.
Contemporary critics were pretty disparaging. Bosley Crowther opened his review for The New York Times with:
For a fellow who has as much talent with a camera as Orson Welles and whose powers of pictorial invention are as fluid and as forcible as his, this gentleman certainly has a strange way of marring his films with sloppiness which he seems to assume that his dazzling exhibitions of skill will camouflage.
John Carter’s review for The New Yorker was in a similar vein: “The penny-dreadful aspects of The Lady from Shanghai are obvious, but the film is nevertheless often remarkable.” While William Brogden, in Variety wrote:
The Lady from Shanghai is okay boxoffice [sic]. It’s exploitable and has Rita Hayworth’s name for the marquees. Entertainment value suffered from the striving for effect that features Orson Welles’ production, direction and scripting. Script is wordy and full of holes which need the plug of taut story telling and more forthright action.
So The Lady from Shanghai sank without trace and for many years was regarded as one of Welles’ great failures. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he remembered how:
Friends avoided me. Whenever it was mentioned, people would clear their throats and change the subject very quickly out of consideration for my feelings. I only found out that it was considered a good picture when I got to Europe. The first nice thing I ever heard about it from an American was from Truman Capote.
More recently, though, not least thanks to the advocacy of François Truffaut, critical opinion has swung behind The Lady from Shanghai, with Dave Kehr in his review for the Chicago Reader dubbing it “the weirdest great movie ever made.” Flawed masterpiece is probably the best description of the film, which in many respects makes it a whole lot more interesting than a perfect masterpiece (if such a thing even exists).
Want to know more about The Lady from Shanghai?
There are some brilliant analyses and critiques of The Lady from Shanghai available online.
- Filmsite Movie Review has some good background and an excellent, detailed plot synopsis.
- Brian Phillips provided a combination of background fact and insightful observations in his piece, Through a Glass, Darkly: ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ and the Legend of Orson Welles for Grantland (unfortunately now defunct).
- Chris Justice offers a similar combination of background and analysis, well worth reading at senses of cinema.
- Among a series of articles at TCM (apparently not accessible outside the US), Why The Lady from Shanghai is Essential by James Steffen & Rob Nixon and Behind the Camera on The Lady from Shanghai by Rob Nixon stand out.
- Stories Behind The Screen has some great anecdotes about the making of the film.
- Reel SF covers the locations with then and now shots together with interactive maps of Acapulco and San Fransisco.
Other pieces worth reading are at:
If you’d like to know more about Orson Welles, then Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson is a terrific read.