The Lady From Shanghai

You cannot be interested in classic cinema without being interested in Orson Welles. You also can’t be interested in Orson Welles without being interested in his difficulties with the studio system. Recutting his films, pulling finances, delaying releases, and forcing stars on him that he did not want to work with was just the tip of the iceberg for Welles. Once a highly respected actor and creator, he would end up taking humiliating jobs in order to finance his own pictures and eating himself to death. Another sad story about the corruption of talent in the studio system. But does the story have any weight? Was he really a misunderstood genius or was he just a pompous ass who rode out his first flush of fame for far too long? I mean Citizen Kane isn’t that great of a film…

I firmly come down on the side of misunderstood genius. I love Citizen Kane and feel he got a raw deal by the insane studio heads. The Lady of Shanghai, his fourth feature to be concretely attributed to him, was borne out of desperation and a final submission to studio heads. Drowning in debt and not able to put his new play on, he found the closest book he could and called up a studio to say that if they buy the option, he would direct, act and produce it for the amount of money he needed to go on that night. He came to regret that decision. Every person on set seemed to be against him. He couldn’t get a set repainted in order to use it again in a couple of days, every person lambasted him for dying and cutting Rita Hayworth’s hair, his score was  completely remade by studio goon, and again his picture was cut several times in order to make enough room at the beginning for the advertisements. But despite all of these unfortunate circumstances the film seems to come off seemingly unscathed. Again this can be attributed to Welles.

Welles is a great actor. This was true when he convinced radio listeners that there really were aliens invading, when he played a character based on a big newspaper magnate, and when he played a Nazi disguised as just a regular guy. However this might be my favorite performance of his. He plays an Irish sailor picked up by a young  trophy wife and her husband. He convinces this sailor to man their yacht on an exotic trip. But there is more to this couple than first meets the eye. Constant close-ups, sketchy eyes, and hushed voices all reveal a murder plot against the husband or maybe it is against his partner in the law firm or maybe it is the beautiful wife. Whatever the truth is, this sailor can’t help but involve himself in it. He gets deeper and deeper as he falls for the wife played by a blond Rita Hayworth, but she is not everything she seems.

Slimy characters, exotic locations and fake accents give this film its charm. While not as tightly plotted as the Stranger, as innovative as Citizen Kane or as filled with whimsy as his later films are, this film quietly stands out as being good simply because the story is good. Oh and the last scene with the mirrors is one of the best scenes ever filmed. So there’s that.


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