Despite heavy studio cuts, The Lady from Shanghai remains a film noir classic and one of Orson Welles’ best movies. Intended to be a much longer picture than it was, Welles might have been disappointed with the final editing, but in the end it still turned out to be a film that that would drag the viewer into a world where nothing would be what it seems.
Some have called the plot of this film confusing over the years and to an extent they are right and due to those aforementioned cuts made, how could it be anything but? Surprisingly though, it is not all that bad and follows a not-quite gullible man named Mike who meets a woman in Mrs. Bannister as played by Rita Hayworth. Hayworth is in full goddess mode in this movie and as such, how could the audience; much less Welles’ character Mike not fall for the woman, as wrong as she might be for him? Factor in a husband who also happens to be a lawyer as portrayed by Everett Sloane, a man who has never lost a single case, a fact which comes into play later on in the film and his partner, Mr. Grisby who is an odd duck to say the least and Mike has his hands full for the bulk of the picture. On top of that is a murder plot which begins as one thing and finishes as another with a truly incredible finale in a hall of mirrors and the movie is nothing short of a masterwork.
Welles proves once again why he was one of the industry’s best directors and with Charles Lawton Jr. aiding him in the photography department, the film looked great and filled with not only those hallmarks of film noir, but those of Welles too like a proficient use of shadow, low angles and more. The film had a pervasive atmosphere filled with tension, most of that coming from the relationships between the various characters, each one hostile in some manner or other and all of them originating from Mr. Bannister like the fruit from a poisonous tree. The most interesting of them all is that between Elsa and Mike, the married woman who seems out of reach and the unwitting sap who entered the picture, both wanting more from each other than they think they are allowed to give but still sharing a primal sort of passion. When Grisby approaches Mike about his insane plan for murder, Mike scoffs and yet eventually goes along with it as it might be the ticket he needs to get him and Elsa free and clear of everything that holds them back. Suffice it to say, things go awry as they always do when murder is on the card and Mike becomes a pawn in a scheme that was bigger than he was aware of.
Not only was his direction strong, but so was his performance and Welles always commands attention, but the scene-stealer here was his real-life wife in Hayworth. Much to the consternation of the studio heads, more than what Welles was normally known for; he decided to get rid of Hayworth’s signature hair on top of everything else and dyed it blonde to top it off. While it was shocking at the time, it proved to be the right move as the femme fatale Hayworth portrayed, would enchant not only Mike, but viewers for decades to come. What made it even better was the fact that at the time, Welles and Hayworth were separated and while they may not have been the best of spouses, much less friends during this period, it was impossible to tell as their chemistry on the big screen was electric. Those that surrounded them including Glenn Anders who was manic as Grisby and Sloane who was both smooth and conniving as Elsa’s husband, were great as well and yet when all was said and done, remained under the constant shadow of Hayworth and her incredible talent.
The Lady from Shanghai would not break the box office during its debut and after the film was long said and done, the careers of the two stars would continue on in one degree or the other while their marriage, like the affair of on-screen characters, would be over. The movie is a high point in the history of cinema, a thing of beauty much like Hayworth, much like the relationship between Mike and Elsa and much like that ending which would be talked about for years to come and it remains a truly great picture from start to finish.
4.5 out of 5