The Lady From Shanghai

There is a story that John Lennon, upon hearing that Beatles lyrics were being analysed in University classes, wrote I Am The Walrus just to fuck with the scholars. I can’t help but wonder if Orson Welles made The Lady From Shanghai with similar motivations. The plot of this film noir is notoriously complex and deliberately disjointed, so much so that even Welles himself could not summarize it for a furious studio boss, and iconic Rita Hayworth appears with her trademark red hair cut short and bleached.

"And they all lived happily ever after... The End."

To cut a shaggy-dog story short, Michael O’Hara is an Irishman who freely admits he’s not the fastest ship in the fleet, but he is what you’d call an able-bodied sailor. He is played by Welles with a comically thick Irish brogue and rugged good-looks from particular angles. After a chance meeting with Elsa (Rita Hayworth), he is employed to run her husband’s yacht. The husband is Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan), an “elaborate cripple” with two canes and a silly walk that would make John Cleese weep. He also happens to be the world’s greatest criminal lawyer.

Bannister’s partner in law is George Grisby (Glenn Anders), an unstable fella who offers Mike five grand to murder… well, to murder George Grisby, or at least sign a confession to that effect. The idea is that Grisby wants to disappear and never be found, and he would be considered legally dead as long as someone swears to have killed him. The cunning part is that, if there’s no body, the confessor is not a murderer in the eyes of the law. Mike gladly (“stewpitly”) complies, but when Grisby is really actually murdered dead and the confession is discovered by the police, only the world’s greatest criminal lawyer can save him.

"I want-cha t' kill me!"

Standout scenes include an irreverent court case where the onlookers laugh riotously at the judge’s jokes, the jurors cough loudly to interrupt testimony and the prosecuting lawyer calls Bannister to the witness stand. As the defence lawyer, this allows Bannister to cross-examine himself, some thirty years before Woody Allen did the same thing in Bananas. But the best is saved for last, where a drugged Mike wakes up in an abandoned funhouse and the tale reaches its climax with a visually striking shoot-out in the hall of mirrors.

I decided to re-watch The Lady From Shanghai last night, after the homage in Manhattan Murder Mystery got me in the mood for it. One reviewer on IMDb summarizes it quite accurately in just four words: Good film, great ending. Everything leading up to the funhouse sequence is perfectly enjoyable, an intriguing yarn populated with humorous grotesques and presented in a reliably interesting Wellesian fashion. It’s not exactly surreal, at least not until they reach the hall of mirrors. There are no cockroaches falling over piano keys or clocks melting on disintegrating landscapes, but it is extremely bizarre to say the least. There are frequent moments when it feels like a comedy, perhaps even an extended meta-joke. Glenn Anders’ performance in particular is mesmerizingly odd, from his wide variety of facial and vocal ticks to the way he pronounces “taaarget practice”. And Everett Sloan has that awkward walking-stick thing going on, something which Welles supposedly introduced to give the veteran radio actor “something to do” on screen.

"I'm aiming at you, lover."

It is yet another one of Welles’ films that was “butchered” by the studio in editing, where about an hour was cut from the original running time. The music by studio-appointed composer Heinz Roemheld was also not to Welles’ taste, nor is it to mine. There are moments where diegetic music is used to great effect, but the majority of the dull orchestral score is based on Please Don’t Kiss Me, a song that Hayworth sings in the film. It’s a song that sounds for all the world like I’m Old Fashioned, which she sung to Fred Astaire in You Were Never Lovelier five years previous. There is only so much I can take of the same song, especially one that sounds like another bloody song! There is the kind of visual flair that you’d expect from the director, but nowhere is this more evident than the ending. The sight of multiple Bannisters limping into view is particularly delightful, and the idea of a shoot-out where none of the characters can be sure where they’re actually aiming is nigh-on genius.

We will never see the film Welles intended to make, but this truncated version is a fine length for such an absurd plot. It is probably the most fun of his films, but on reflection (pardon the pun) the ending is the most exciting section by a long shot. It’s either a severely flawed masterpiece, or fantastic taaarget practice. Bang!

Four orsons out of five

One Response to “The Lady From Shanghai”

  1. The stills from the cut fun-house sequence at the end provide a tantalising glimpse into what was lost. There is a shot of a skull-like broken dummy head resembling Rita Hayworth which is very creepy.

    If you can get a hold of “This Is Orson Welles”, the interview book with Peter Bogdanovitch, there’s some more great insights in that. Welles says he broke into the studio lot at night so he could hand paint the funhouse set.

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