Written and directed by Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King, “The Lady From Shanghai” is the second noir film from Welles that not only showcases his strengths in production, set-pieces, and direction, but also his weaknesses at this point in his career in writing with some questionable performance choices. Out of all the films I’ve seen from Orson Welles, this one is definitely the film I am most mixed on. The first forty minutes are rough. If you’re into overly melodramatic and cheesy line delivery by both Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, then you’ll love it. I was not so entertained by this portion of the film. What may have contributed to the overly mushy and almost disgusting levels of romanticizing in this portion of the film is the fact that Welles was married to Hayworth during the shoot, even though they were heading towards divorce after the film’s release. The general story that the film is trying to tell is that of Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish Sailor with a penchent for talking a bit too much at times, who saves Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of thugs in Central Park New York while on a carriage ride. She informs him that she and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) had just arrived from Shanghai and intend to sail to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal, after which she offers him a job on their ship for saving her life earlier. He agrees against his better judgement (We learn through the character’s seemingly ever present narration), and they set off to sea.
As far as noirs go, this one has all of the right ingredients, it just takes its merry time setting up all of the pieces. The mysterious machinations of both Bannisters is toyed with as the journey goes along. However, Arthur eventually gets suspicious of the comfortable nature that Elsa and Michael exude and he hires Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), a divorce-themed detective to follow them and investigate. Then there’s Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby may be my favorite performance in the film because nearly ALL of his acting choices feel completely bonkers for the film he’s in, but hey, it was fun. Anyways, Grisby catches O’Hara in the act of courting Elsa and uses that information to force O’Hara to help him fake his own death so he can get the insurance money and live abroad in hiding. O’Hara blindly accepts, not knowing the true extent of Grisby’s plan, but the offer of $5,000 for faking a murder was enough for him to go along for the time being. Unfortunately for Grisby, Broome had been following along and digging into all of the principal characters motivations and backgrounds, which brought him to the truth. He figured out that Grisby had been planning on killing Arthur instead and pinning it on O’Hara. When confronting Grisby- Broome’s mortally wounded, but stays alive long enough to warn O’Hara and Elsa over the phone and in person of the truth. Everything comes undone when Grisby is found actually dead, not Arthur, of whom O’Hara had rushed to save- unfortunately with his confession written by Grisby on his person. There’s a courtroom scene where Arthur defends O’Hara, but also discovers the extent of O’Hara and Elsa’s affair. Eventually O’Hara makes a suicide attempt in a huge commotion in the court and escapes in the confusion. All three major characters end up in a house of mirrors, each armed with pistols, a will to survive, and an urge to kill.
I have yet to see the film that Welles’s made inbetween this film’s release and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger”, which was his first foray into the noir genre. Reportedly that film had several different writing contributers including an uncredited effort by John Huston. I have to say though that while this film is worth a watch, the deficiencies of the scriptwork suggests that the film “Mank”s titular argument of sole writing credit for “Citizen Kane” being mostly due to the talent of Herman J. Mankiewicz rings doubly true. The script and line delivery are curious at best. Orson Welles’ Irish accent goes in and out throughout the whole of the film, and when he seemingly remembers that he’s supposed to be playing an Irishman, the brogue is impeccably laughable. No, the writing is not what works here- it’s Orson’s set-pieces and technical imagery maneuvers in the back half of the film, but particularly in the last fifteen to twenty minutes that make this film worth watching. Once Grisby shows up dead and Orson’s O’Hara is on the run, the film’s spirit rises from floundering to fantastic.
Overall this is a decent noir and one with some truly impeccable imagery from Orson Welles behind the camera. It’s just too bad that the first half of the film takes its time with some truly cringe-inducing romance between real husband and wife Welles and Hayworth. If you really enjoyed the second half of this noir, I would implore you to check out Welles later effort in the genre in “Touch of Evil” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/11/07/old-school-review-touch-of-evil-1958/). That film is a far better example of what the infamous auteur is capable of. Though, to be fair, I can only recommend the “reconstructed” version of that film which was re-edited to Welles’ notes and specifications decades later.
Final Score: 1 Easy to Miss Background Cameo of Errol Flynn