Silver Screen Standards: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Despite the icy cold shade of Rita Hayworth’s hair, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) plays like a fever dream, confusing and sweat-soaked, long before it reaches its famous funhouse climax. It’s a favorite among classic noir fans even though it suffers from many of the usual problems of an Orson Welles picture, especially studio editing that undermined Welles’ intentions and eliminated huge chunks of the film. Perhaps the problems weaken the final product, and perhaps they only add to its disturbing vision of sharks in the water, mad for fresh blood. There’s so much going on beneath the surface of The Lady from Shanghai, and we only glimpse flashes of that hidden action in the final film, but what we see enthralls and repels us. It is the dark side of the sublime and, thus, the very essence of noir.
Welles is, of course, at the center of the picture, as director, producer, screenplay writer, and star. He plays an Irish sailor, Michael O’Hara, who reluctantly takes a job on the luxury yacht of powerful attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) after Bannister’s wife, Elsa (Rita Hayworth) takes a liking to him. Elsa entangles Michael in adultery and a plot to escape her husband, while Arthur’s partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) tempts Michael into an even more dangerous scheme that involves faking George’s death and having Michael confess to killing him. Everything goes sideways, as the plans of noir characters always do, and Michael ends up on the run from a murder wrap that threatens to send him to death row.
The third act is littered with plot holes and questions, but it doesn’t matter because nothing in the film is designed to make sense. It means to evoke dread and claustrophobia, paranoia and doubt, and it does that in spades. It’s a post-war American remix of The Odyssey; behold the weary sailor, far from home, cast upon strange islands and awash in monsters. We see the name of the yacht, Circe, and then we see Elsa, a siren on the rocks, beautiful and deadly. Arthur and George are monsters, too, but less lovely, and the whole picture feels like a trip through the underworld, especially the bizarre aquarium scene, the courtroom circus, the pursuit through Chinatown, and the funhouse finale. Even in the sun these characters seem to inhabit hell; only Elsa ever looks cool.
The performances increase our fascination and uneasiness, especially Glenn Anders’ utterly unhinged George, whom we often see in dizzying closeups that emphasize his sweaty face and madly lit eyes. Arthur’s habit of calling Elsa “lover” drips with irony; there is no love here, and both of them know it. Arthur’s crutches suggest weakness, but it’s a ruse. He wields terrible power over both Elsa and George, and he enjoys toying with them and with Michael. Welles doesn’t have to work very hard to play desire for and distrust of Hayworth, his wife at the time but well on the way to divorce. She, luminous in her shockingly short, blonde waves, is a mystery, a menace, and a tragedy all at once. In the edges of her story we feel that she is more a monster made than born, cursed perhaps for being too beautiful, like nymphs who attract the lust of the gods. Who wouldn’t do terrible things to escape a man like Arthur? The mirror sequence at the end shows the two of them, Arthur and Elsa, reflected together and taking aim, shooting themselves as they shoot at each other. Like so many noir couples, they share a fatal connection that ties them together no matter what schemes they imagine.
Film critic Dave Kehr famously called The Lady from Shanghai “the weirdest great movie ever made,” but if you’re looking for equally strange bedfellows with a similar nightmare vibe I think Night Tide (1961) and Carnival of Souls (1962) both fit the bill. Welles is best remembered today for Citizen Kane (1941), but for more of his noir work see The Stranger (1946), The Third Man (1949), and Touch of Evil (1958). Rita Hayworth is iconic in Gilda (1946), but I love her brighter side in musicals like You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and Cover Girl (1944).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.