The Lady From Shanghai

This 1947 action thriller was directed by Welles, starring him and Rita Hayworth, with whom he was at the time of shooting, going through a divorce. The story is one of people being thrown oddly together and navigating bizarre twists. Michael O’Hara (Welles) saves the life of the gorgeous Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and her husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane) endeavors to reward him with a job on his yacht. Enter George Grisby, Michael’s partner, who wants to stage his own murder to commit life insurance fraud, and offers Michael five grand to confess.
What ensues is a many-layered tale of deceit and manipulation, the plot thickening repeatedly.

Lady was adapted from William Castle’s novel If I Die Before I Wake, with many changes from Welles. It was financed by Harry Cohn, co-founder, president, and production manager of Columbia Pictures. Welles biographer Barbara Leaming charges that Cohn was notoriously lecherous, using a letter opener to arrange a peek under the skirts of his starlets.

One of these was Rita Hayworth--her starring role in the film was demanded by Cohn and made more complicated by the fact that, according to Leaming, Welles and she, despite their impending divorce, began living together and sleeping in the same bed around the time of the film’s production.

As always, Welles designed innovative but tricky shots for his cinematographer, in this case Charles Lawton. In one sequence, Welles had Lawton shoot what biographer Charles Higham called (in 1985) “the longest dolly shot ever seen on the screen.” It required Lawton to keep Welles and Hayworth in focus through the duration of a three-quarter mile carriage ride.

But a more interesting sequence, one that has taken its place in film history, is the funhouse scene. Here, Welles created an insane maze of mirrors, composed of 2,912 square feet of glass, eighty mirrors seven by four feet. They were one-way, allowing Lawton to shoot through them.

As was the case with most Welles films, the road got very bumpy when the studio began looking at the footage. Writes Higham:

Harry Cohn and his assistant Jack Fier were convinced The Lady
From Shanghai would be unreleasable, and when at last
Welles began working on it with the crusty editor Viola Lawrence,
she was obliged to report that the footage was a jumbled mess...
(Lawrence) and Cohn were almost hysterical because they
felt Rita had been rendered mousy. So narrow were there
concerns that the artistry of the movie as a whole meant
nothing to them; they saw the picture only as a disastrous
treatment of the studio’s biggest star.
The movie would go on to be regarded as a minor part of the Welles ouevre, and is regarded by his biographers as something of a lost film, a nearly-forgotten enigma. Though few consider it, from beginning to end, a masterpiece, Higham is of the opinion that the “picture is outstanding in the Mexican sequences, in the picnic scene (where Bannister, Grisby, and Elsa lie in hammocks in the heat and exchange smart remarks), in O’Hara’s speech about the sharks, with indirect references to the Jacare the sinisterly charming aquarium episode, and above all in the confrontation in the hall of mirrors.” He concludes that today “the movie seems even more stimulating, daring, and dazzling than it did in 1947.”

Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. New York: St.
Martin’s. 1985.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1983.


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