The Lady From Shanghai: Welles’ nightmare-infused filmmaking riddle

The story of The Lady from Shanghai (1947) starts with a favour. Orson Welles, who had already achieved global success with Citizen Kane, released before his 25th birthday, had swapped his attention to the stage. He was directing an ambitious version of Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days when he ran out of money. Not without friends in Hollywood, Welles called Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn, who agreed to stump up the cash – if the director made a film for the studio. What resulted was an inventively dreamlike film, part noir, part murder-mystery – and a real-life nightmare for Cohn, who famously remarked that he would give a thousand dollars to anyone able to satisfactorily explain the film’s plot.

The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Rita_Hayworth The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles

Continuing the standard that had been set by The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai was a flop. Although it fared better in Europe (it was released there first in 1947) most US critics panned it. Bosley Crowther claimed it was sloppy. Variety suggested that Welles’ ‘rambling style’ had ‘occasional flashes of imagination’. History has been kinder. The film was cut from over two hours to less than 90 minutes, with none of the director’s edits considered – today, Welles is mostly praised for the great, rather than lambasted for the shoddy. And much about The Lady from Shanghai is great. Several scenes – beyond the famous hall of mirrors climax – stand out, evidence that Welles was the master of creating atmosphere through unusual shots. A chess game fades into a birds-eye view of a courtroom. A tense cliff top exchange is filmed from above, exaggerating how the characters are teetering on the edge of a precipice. Two lovers exchange vows in an aquarium in front of a fish tank filled with large, slow moving fish. A group of school children witness their passionate embrace and are ushered away by a teacher.

The ‘background’ functions as a comment on ‘foreground’ actions. The subtle, foreboding undertones are enhanced by these surrealist aspects, hinting that nightmarish qualities exist below the surface of normality – nothing is as it seems. Undeniably artistic, none of the filmmaking creativity evident in The Lady from Shanghai feels contrived. There’s a strong sense that it’s how Welles saw the world. He wasn’t trying to be clever or different, he was just presenting scenarios in a way that felt entirely natural but just happen to be slightly off-kilter.

The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles

Those virtues are unquestionably Welles. But surely the film’s shortcomings are his too. The nonsensical plot. Michael’s questionable Irish accent (Welles played the lead character). Watching The Lady from Shanghai, a viewer has to accept that the film operates a slightly different plane. Welles lets you in, but never enough. There’s always something unknown, a mystery that will never be solved, no matter how often you watch for the answers. You might think you understand Shanghai’s true colours, but then you realise you probably never will. Welles’ character always remains just out of reach. Upon meeting the glamorous Elsa Bannister (played by Rita Hayworth, then Welles’ real-life wife) in Central Park, he understands that common-sense wasn’t going to factor into their relationship: “When I start out to make a fool of myself there’s very little that can stop me.” Michael revels in his bad decisions. He accepts a job working for Mr Bannister (a prominent lawyer, played by Everett Sloane), and soon finds himself skippering Bannister’s yacht, despite his attraction to Elsa and the obvious shady dealings that surround the couple. The ultimate anti-hero – Michael ‘saves’ Elsa from a robbery yet never quite lives up to his own standard – he is eager to please and unquestioning. His wistful, almost hyperbolic voice-over imbues the film with a sense of loss and retrospection that almost seems to come straight from Welles – the director who enjoyed success so early only to see it dissipate in front of his eyes.

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Yet for all the film’s complexities, the thriller finish is remarkably literal. The fun-house elements are an obvious, visual comment on Michael’s lack of control, the multiple mirror reflections confirm that nothing is real, that the ‘self’ is made up of multiple facets that exist together to form a whole that’s not always the sum of it’s part. Often the scene that’s used as evidence for Welles’ genius, it’s actually the most contrived. Drawing heavily on German Expressionism and apparently inspired by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920), which Welles showed to the cast before filming began, it’s sinister, unhinged, hallucinatory… but ultimately unsatisfying. Possibly the product of over-cutting, but disappointing considering the director’s commitment to madness – he spent hours hand-painting some of the scenery.

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The Lady from Shanghai might not be Welles’ most acclaimed film but it’s a worthy watch in his catalogue. For years, the director would claim: “Friends avoided me,” Welles said. “Whenever it was mentioned, people would clear their throats and change the subject very quickly out of consideration for my feelings”. Yet in Europe, the film was embraced, particularly by Francois Truffaut.

In the foreword to Andre Bazin’s 1978 biography, he wrote “The only raison d’etre for The Lady from Shanghai… is the cinema itself’. Watching it, it’s impossible not to wonder what a ‘director’s cut’ would look like. In his centenary year, most of the attention will no doubt focus on Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, but many of these interim films reveal just as much about a director that – despite the acclaim – has always remained slightly on the fringe. With three documentaries set for release over the coming months, Welles saturation looks likely. Perhaps it’s time to return to his films and judge him through his own lens.

This post is my contribution to the 1947 blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy.

Find out more about this amazing year of filmmaking by reading all the entries here.

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15 thoughts on “The Lady From Shanghai: Welles’ nightmare-infused filmmaking riddle

  1. Watching it, it’s impossible not to wonder what a ‘director’s cut’ would look like.

    Absolutely. Many thanks for such a great writeup — I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and you’ve made me want to dig the movie out for a rewatch.

  2. I love that this movie exists. It’s so surreal and I can only imagine how bizarre it seemed to 1947 audiences. Plus, it paired Rita and Orson, both of whom do a great job. I took a friend to a screening of this not too long ago and I told him “Don’t worry about the plot, and don’t look up anything about it until after you’ve seen it.” I wanted his first viewing to be as pure as possible so it would have a full impact, and he loved it.
    Great post!

  3. Great pick, Vicki! I love the backstory info, as well as Cohn’s offer of a thousand dollars! (I sure wouldn’t be able to collect!) I like that you pointed out the unusual shots in the film — I only really think of the funhouse scene, but you’ve totally made me want to re-watch it, just to look for these scenes. I also appreciate your interesting analysis of the film — good stuff! Thank you for this great contribution to the blogathon!

  4. A great review of a great movie. I think the quote from Truffaut nails it. Welles was working in a cinematic language where style and tone are more important than plot, although Welles’ Irish accent is truly terrible in any language.

  5. I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen recently and it looks amazing in that setting – the hall of mirrors especially, as you say. I do wish that we could see all the parts that were cut out, though. Excellent p;iece.

  6. Thank you for a lovely post, and what an interesting double-feature Caligari and Shanghai! Hmm… I think I will try that. I love an underdog. Knowing people avoided Welles’ gaze makes The Lady from Shanghai more enticing. Excellent Post!

  7. I love this movie. Interesting that you pointed out Welles’ accent. That’s something that gets said a lot, but he actually spent a lot of time in Ireland. I think he lived there as a kid. If anyone should know an Irish actor, it would be him, but I agree that it sounds off.

    We studied this in a film class once, and in the class after the screening, we had it on during the lecture with the sound off. I recommend watching it that way. Without the sound distractions (including that accent), you really see the beauty of the film, and how Welles uses carnivalesque elements — like the aquarium scene with the foreboding undertones that you touched on.

  8. This movie’s backstory and making-of details would make a movie in themselves. SO much happened and glad you included it here, along with the interesting analysis, and picked this movie for the blogathon, thanks for taking part!

  9. This film underscores my double standard when it comes to certain films noir. I got annoyed with “The Big Sleep” because of its confusing plot (until I read the book), but I can forgive “Lady From Shanghai” anything.

    You’re right about Welles not letting us in, or letting us see/know just enough. But that’s what makes it a bit dreamy (nightmarish?) in my opinion. This film never gets old for me.

  10. Ooh, I just listened to the “You Must Remember This” podcast on Rita & Orson—and after reading your post now, I feel the urge to watch it is increasingly necessary!

    ((I am still working on your Liebster btw!! 🙂 )

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