The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
April 16, 2021 10:59 AM - Subscribe

Fascinated by gorgeous Mrs. Bannister, seaman Michael O'Hara joins a bizarre yachting cruise, and ends up mired in a complex murder plot.

A seaman becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired to work on a yacht. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for it's climax "hall of mirrors" scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass.

Tom Huddleston: It’s been called everything from an outright disaster to ‘the weirdest great movie ever made’. Like ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ before it, Orson Welles’s glittering 1947 thriller was subject to swingeing studio cuts (up to an hour was sliced from the finished picture). But what remains of ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ is remarkable enough. Made as the director was in the process of breaking up with his star, the breathtaking Rita Hayworth, this is less a film noir and more a divorce case writ large, steeped in irony, self-loathing, love, hate, fascination, recrimination, mistrust and sexual longing.

It’s the story of an Irish roustabout – played with wandering accent and waistline by Welles – and his relationship with a troubled society beauty (Hayworth) after he takes a job on her yacht. The plot is a magnificent mess of switchbacks and revelations, climaxing with one of cinema’s most outrageously inventive sequences: a shootout in a funfair hall of mirrors. The result may not have the crystalline perfection of ‘Citizen Kane’, but that’s a flaw it shares with every other film in history.

Scott Nye: For me…I’m saying for me now…this is Welles’ most viscerally satisfying picture, one hell of a yarn that unfolds headfirst, unencumbered by any real typical concerns with the common hallmarks of a narrative picture, a sort of dream logic at work that fits with Welles’ just-coming-off-a-bender voiceover and a pure aesthetic revelation. One of those pictures I could watch again immediately after it ends. Rita Hayworth is almost obscenely beautiful here, absolutely a femme worth fataling over. Welles’ Irish accent is a little silly, but he makes up for it by investing the film in a lot of hyper-local flavor, shooting on real locations and including a lot of the languages and cultures that loosely make up San Francisco.

Eithne Farry: Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.

But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’

posted by Carillon (9 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is a great movie, in spite of a few flaws. It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I do recall that one of its flaws is that Orson Welles THINKS he's a lot better at accents than he actually is. Beyond that, I think maybe the plot is a little bit obtuse, but I'm not as sure of that criticism
posted by wabbittwax at 11:49 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

but I do recall that one of its flaws is that Orson Welles THINKS he's a lot better at accents than he actually is.

True. But, I would say dying Rita Hayworth’s hair blonde is the true cinematic crime here.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:12 PM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I saw this for the first time yesterday and I thought the ending was amazing. Plus I'm from San Francisco so I love seeing the city in the 40s.
posted by Carillon at 10:35 PM on April 16, 2021

I also watched this yesterday for the first time. It has many good points but two major flaws that I cannot overlook.

Wells miscast himself in the lead roll, he is far too urbane and clean cut to make a believable roughneck sailor called "Black Irish".

Secondly, the plot makes not a damn lick of sense. Maybe the book or the longer cut of the film explains things better but I never got the a good handle on what the various characters were scheming to do, which makes the final revelation just confusing.

Those location shoots sure look nice though.
posted by AndrewStephens at 7:10 AM on April 18, 2021

I don’t really consider the plot making no sense to be a hindrance. Like The Big Sleep before it, it’s more about the tangible atmosphere, pulpy dialogue, larger than life characters, and the dread feeling of fatalism as you’re being pulled through a story that keeps you in a state of constant disorientation as it rushes you to an inexorable unhappy ending. (But then it veers at the last second to end on an almost comical note!)
posted by Atom Eyes at 7:31 PM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm finally rewatching this as part of my ongoing Orson Welles run-through.

I'll have more pertinent things to say about the film's artistry at a later date, but for now, let me just say that the hubbub about how Welles "ruined" Hayworth's looks for this movie is bananas to me.

I would let any two American states burn to the ground if I could find out what Rita's neck smelled like on this picture.

People don't think she looks FANTASTIC? What the actual fuck.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:22 AM on February 17

As a heterosexual woman who doesn't have skin in the game, so to speak, I think she looks great to modern eyes, but the change in look was probably jarring to people (*cough*men*cough*) who worshipped her more classic early look.

The open sequence is quite something. It ought to be, just based on the dialogue, a classic game-recognizes-game moment, but poor whats-his-name is too caught up in the line of nonsense he's giving the gorgeous dame to really hear what's coming back at him.
posted by praemunire at 12:10 PM on February 17

Welles and Hayworth are playing their on-screen romance like something they desperately wish would work, even though they know it is doomed.

Given where they were at as a couple, that's quite sad, really.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:44 PM on February 17

Some real five star elements in this film, even though the film as a whole never sniffs that level.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:13 PM on February 17

« Older The Falcon and the Winter Sold...   |  Top Chef: Pan African Portland... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments