Early on in The Lady from Shanghai there’s a key piece of dialogue explaining the title. Orson Welles’s Michael O’Hara, an Irish sailor in New York between jobs, meets a woman (Rita Hayworth, Welles’s wife at the time). Michael is on foot, Elsa is in a horse-drawn carriage taking a turn around Central Park. In clear “I am hitting on you” dialogue, he charms her with stories about all the wickedest places in the world he’s been to. The Far East is high on the list, with Macau, Shanghai among the places mentioned. Elsa’s been to all of them. Gambling? he offers. Kind of, she shrugs.
The “lady” is no such thing, of course, but whether she can be more than one thing is really what this film is about. Or it would be if Welles’s original vision had been left intact and the studio hadn’t reshot whole sequences, shortened his film in draconian fashion, added a histrionic score Welles hated and then spent a year in the cutting room to try and turn The Lady from Shanghai back into the sort of Rita Hayworth vehicle they thought they were getting in the first place.
Welles gave them a kinky, vaguely Brechtian, darkly ironic The 39 Steps – man shackled to blonde, except this blonde is no innocent. The original story survives. Michael is hired as crew on the yacht owned by the Elsa’s husband, rich lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan), a man who needs sticks to get around and as they sail around the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and up to San Francisco, Elsa spends her time smouldering at Michael, Michael dons asbestos underwear in a vain attempt to keep her at bay and the husband glowers impotently, while on the side Broome (Ted de Corsia), a private detective, and Grisby (Glenn Anders), Bannister’s business partner, try to keep an eye on things.
On top of this romance/not romance plot hinging on whether Elsa is or is not an out-and-out gold-digger, there’s a bizarre murder/not murder plot, suggested by the incessantly sweaty Grisby to Michael, designed to bag Grisby a massive insurance payout when he “dies”, from which he’ll give Michael $5,000, enough to buy Michael’s way into Elsa’s mercenary heart.
Is Elsa really a mercenary? Could Michael be a real killer? Does Grisby have an added motive? It all ends up in court, on a murder charge, where, bizarrely and in a Kafa-esque turn, Elsa husband is the prosecuting attorney and at one point even calls himself as a witness in scenes clearly designed to be comical.
What a mess this film is, as off kilter as Welles’s Oirish accent, and who knows what it would have been like in its intended form, though there’s a kind of poetic justice in the mess it’s become since Welles is interrogating the idea of the integral individual, starting with Hayworth’s image – dyeing her hair blonde and cutting it short when she was famous for long, auburn locks – and working on through the cast. This instability of the personality is iconically summed up in the famous Hitchock-meets-surrealism finale, at a funfair, where a hall of mirrors reflects back multiple versions of the same character.
This sequence remains superb, as so much of the film is. The studio hated the fact Welles had dyed their star’s hair, they bemoaned the lack of glamour close-ups (and it’s very obvious where they’ve later been dropped in), and they also didn’t go a bundle on Welles’s decision to shoot on location, in handheld rough-and-ready style. Welles throws in some superbly elegant long tracking shots with much use of the crane, as if to buy the studio off with some wow factor here and there, but the sense is that he really wants to be out on the yacht (Errol Flynn’s in real life), on the high seas and in foreign climes.
It’s another case of what could have been, a Welles film, like The Magnificent Ambersons or The Stranger, to be watched as much for what’s not there as what is.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023