Movie Critique – The Lady from Shanghai

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A dark home movie made by a true artist, though considered a wreck, created some stepping stones for future film making, showing the genius behind the camera and on screen, despite the battles the cast and crew faced. 

The Lady from Shanghai is a 1947 film noir directed by Orson Welles. He also starred in it along-side his estranged wife Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane. The film is based on the 1938 novel If I Die Before Awake by Sherwood King.

Irish sailor Michael O'Hara (played by Orson Welles) is hired by Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister (played by Rita Hayworth) to help her and her husband Arthur Bannister (played by Everett Sloane), a disabled criminal defense attorney, sail their yacht around America. Little does he realize he would be caught in a whirlpool of intrigue and murder. 

The movie contains a narrative style with Welles doing the narration as the story progresses. The film was shot in 1946 but wasn’t released until 1947. The film has two very volatile ingredients that could have burned on screen - explosive genius of Orson Welles; and America's reigning love goddess, Rita Hayworth. 

And we cannot discount the fact that Harry Cohn, Columbia Pictures owner, who had considered Hayworth as his property and had stooped even to bug her phone and house, had exploded when Hayworth got married to Welles. Having both of them in a movie that his company was releasing added another fire element in the mix. It was only bound to become a mess, but a mess that was so combustible that it became a memorable movie decades later.

Originally considered a disaster, the film was still selected to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry. The story telling used the tongue-in-cheek approach with heavy dose of black humor and Welles documentary-style of filming. The loss of success in the beginning and being praised decades later reminds me of a 1959 Hindi Indian language film, Kaagaz Ke Phool (= Flowers of Paper) that had been treated similarly. 

In fact, Guru Dutt, who had produced, directed and even performed the lead role in this Hindi film, reminds me so much of Orson Welles. Both are genius at what they create on screen, and have really dramatic and explosive personal lives. I feel a similarity between both of these film legends. 

Back to Welles. He not only casted his estranged wife but also created  scandal by having her lush red hair cut short and bleached blonde for the film, which neither the film executive Harry Cohn nor anyone else liked to begin with. However, that change morphed Hayworth from a beautiful babe to a femme fatale in an instant.

Welles uses satire in the story line. Specially when he has the Glosso Lusto hair commercial on the radio aboard the yacht, alluding to the long red mane of Hayworth that had to be chopped for this film. Almost a mockery, forcing the viewers to remember Hayworth with her long hair. With simple use of light and shadow and lack of sound, and very few close-ups, and narration of gruesome tales in an affable manner, Welles managed to show the cruelty, jealousy and other darker shades of human mind with ease. 

The iconic climatic shootout in the Hall of Mirrors maze has been emulated in several movies since then and had evolved considerably. I mentioned about such mirror scenes in the John Wick series movie review and also we see it famously in Enter the Dragon movie. For this film it was created by special effects genius Lawrence W. Butler. 

Mexico was the filming location and per the Screenwriter and Associate Producer William Castle's notes they had several problems with heat, poisonous insects, barracudas and crocodiles among others including death of assistant cameraman Donald Corey due to heart attack on the very first day of shooting. Of course one cannot discount Welles manipulative and erratic behavior confusing the cast as well as the crew; or his disregard for others money and time. No doubt Welles and Hayworth's divorce was finalized soon after the film was released.

Though Welles had asked for many things in the filming, like not-doing close-up shots of Hayworth or wanting to have no music in the iconic scene or using sound as a scary tactic, Columbia Pictures boss, Harry Cohn and the editing crew vetoed on them. May be if he hadn't and left how Welles wanted perhaps the film would have been a success instead of a train wreck. The volatile ingredients and Welles-Cohn war all through the making of the film stimulated the movie to become nothing less than a train wreck, sadly.

A dark home movie made by a true artist, though considered a wreck, created some stepping stones for future film making, showing the genius behind the camera and on screen, despite the battles the cast and crew faced. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Trivia:

a. The song "Amado Mio" plays in the background in the scene in Acapulco. Rita Hayworth had performed the same song in the 1946 film Gilda, which released two years earlier.

b. This is the film debut of Ted de Corsia who played the role of Sidney Broome. Recently I saw him as the antagonist Willie Garzah in the 1948 film The Naked City.

c. Please Don’t Kiss Me by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher is pictured on Hayworth, but is dubbed by Anita Kert Ellis, uncredited though at the time of this movie release.

d. A 1927 Mexican movie poster titled Resurrection can be seen in the chase scene in Acapulco. That film stars Dolored del Rio, who was Welles' former girlfriend. 

e. The yacht that is seen in the film where most of the movie takes places is named Circe in the film. However it was rented from Errol Flynn, named Zaca. Flynn even skippered the yacht between takes. The pet dachshund used in the film also is owned by Flynn. The one movie I saw of him was Perry Mason's The Case of Curious Bride (My review here) released in 1935. Flynn had only one scene as alive and mostly as a corpse with no dialogues anywhere.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the court room in one scene, you can see Mrs. Bannister's maid sitting behind her and in the immediate scene that follows, when she is standing up there is a man instead behind and also the court room is considerably empty.


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