Orson Welles’s ‘The Lady from Shanghai’

Orson Welles was a force of cinema unto himself, even with films such as “The Lady from Shanghai” outside his usual acclaim. Welles once prophesized to the indispensable Peter Bogdanovich, “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead.” Bogdanovich complied by selecting Welles’s magnum opus, “Citizen Kane” for the book, “The Film That Changed My Life,” by Robert Elder.

Could Welles’s 1947 film noir “The Lady from Shanghai” change your life? Probably not in the way “Citizen Kane” influenced movie history, but it does captivate. “The Lady from Shanghai” is sandwiched between 2 Welles films that bookend film noir’s classic era. The genre in its broadest sense literally means black film, but its double entendre uses shadowy cinematography to reveal stormy characters, doused in sex and cynicism.

With “Citizen Kane” (1941), the “Encyclopedia of Film Noir” notes it as a “creative textbook” in the classical film noir canon. 17 years later Welles again wrote, directed and starred in “Touch of Evil,” which is widely considered the last bastion of classic film noir. Utilizing his triad of talents for “The Lady from Shanghai,” Welles laid a meaty slice of cinematic experimentations midway through the era.

Unfortunately, Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures at the time, took an axe to Welles’s original cut. The hour of material was left on the editing room floor for the ghosts at Columbia studios. “The Lady from Shanghai” hardly seems a wholehearted Orson Welles canvas and more a rough sketch of mild distraction.

Welles made the film for Cohn in exchange for completion funds on his stage production of “Around the World in 80 Days.” Adapted from Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles flippantly pitched the book to Cohn while asking for money. He later confessed that a girl nearby happened to be reading it when he was on the phone with Cohn. Luckily, or fatefully for Welles the story involved juicy film noir themes like conspiratorial murder plots, poetic ramblings and exotic locations.

The deal included Welles casting his wife, Rita Hayworth who was under contract at Columbia. Hayworth embodied the part and transformed her persona to join Hollywood’s “bad-girls.” Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a charismatic Irish seaman with a stormy past who happens upon a lofty damsel in distress. Her sultry charm and rich husband’s bank role lure O’Hara into captaining their yacht. They set sail from New York to San Francisco via the Panama Canal, dropping grandiose profundities encapsulated with attitude the whole way. Some of O’Hara’s memorable punch-line philosophies are, “I’ve always found it very sanitary to be broke” and “It’s a bright, guilty world.”

The rambling dialogue is ornate; a wandering punctuation that staggers drunkenly between Confucius and Irish poetry. It would all seem hackneyed if it weren’t for Welles’s ingenious camera movements that so defines today’s visual language of film. The camera never stops moving, but flows seamlessly to capture every beat of characters tumultuous with heat and malice.

There is no doubt that the off-screen tensions and impending divorce of Welles and Hayworth fanned radiant performances. Fittingly, these characters are drawn by lust that melts into a pool of loathing. In most scenes Hayworth desperately searches Welles’s eyes for approval and his gaze returns only bewildered hopelessness. O’Hara is a character preyed upon, but always aware of his predators. O’Hara deliciously foreshadows this with a story about blood-crazed sharks that cannibalize each other in pursuit of prey.

The entire film hums an undertone of nihilistic melancholy; in other words it unapologetically depicts sad, destructive characters. It’s also great fun to watch a filmmaker in a state of creative arrogance; never appeasing what 1947 audiences expected. The plot is a muddled back-story for Welles to flex visual prowess in the form of film noir philosophy. In fact, Cohn famously snubbed Welles by offering a reward to anyone who could explain the plot, but not even Welles had Occam’s Razor to boil it down. In many ways it preludes the loose plots and high concepts of French New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. It was Welles’s “Touch of Evil” that stirred them both into a frenzy of groundbreaking filmmaking.

If anything, the film’s smashing climax is itself a technical and poetic feat of filmmaking. In a funhouse maze of mirrors, O’Hara bears witness to Elsa and her husband unravel like sharks in bloodied water. It may be reason alone to watch “The Lady from Shanghai,” but that’s like licking the frosting off an already rich chocolate cake. The film noir of Orson Welles is best enjoyed in its richly dark totality; frosting and all.