I’ve wanted to start a series of classic reviews for this blog for a few weeks now but I’ve been too busy handling the basic content of the website in conjunction with daily life. Now that my life has slowed down a bit, I can afford to spend some time working on more weekly content.
So why start with this film? I’m currently taking an online class on the filmography of Orson Welles and I’m eager to start talking about them! Last month, I signed up for an online lecture series hosted by Matthew Asprey Gear, author of the book At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City. Having now sat through two of his lectures and starting to rewatch Welles’ films again out of order, it’s made me want to talk about the films of his I haven’t reviewed yet for other websites (Citizen Kane, Other Side of the Wind, Mank).
The Lady from Shanghai was the second movie we watched for the course. It’s an interesting movie to start with simply because it’s… an interesting movie. Anyone familiar with the works of Orson Welles or classic Hollywood Noir is already familiar with the film. It was the infamous director’s fourth film as director and is widely regarded today as one of his weirder movies.
On paper, it’s a pretty standard hard boiled crime thriller premise of the time. An Irish sailer named Michael O’Hara (Welles) finds himself in Central Park New York when a woman is being assaulted by a group of hoodlums. After saving the woman, Rosalie, he’s invited by her husband Arthur to join them on their Yacht to San Fransisco as a for-hire sailor.
En route, he’s given an impressive business offer when he reveals that he served as a soldier in the Spanish civil war and killed one of Franco’s spies. Arthur’s business partner George Grisby offers him a business proposition: to kill him.
Grisby wants to take his death and escape with his life insurance payout while Michael gets away with an unconvictable “murder”. Unfortunately when a signed confession and Grisby’s body show up in police’s hands, Michael realizes he’s in deep and caught in a much larger game he couldn’t have predicted.
If you’ve seen one noir film, you’re familiar with this style of plot. It’s a story of love, lust, temptation, betrayal and the cost of all evil things. It captures the essence of a character being drawn into a den of evil with temptations of love and wealth only for the trap to go off on his head.
Part of what makes Lady from Shanghai interesting is what makes it different from his prior films as well as what makes it different from other Noir films coming out at the time. It definitely feels a great deal more modest a production than his two major RKO films Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons. This isn’t a story of great and powerful men. It’s a story of the victims of great and powerful men. As such, it feels like the odd one out in Welles’ early filmography. It’s almost conventional as far as an Orson Welles film goes.
That said, The Lady From Shanghai is a super weird movie. It’s not Welles’ weirdest movie but it’s dotted with tons of eccentricities, editing errors and purposeful aesthetic choices that make an otherwise grounded crime thriller feel emotionally cool and disorganized.
Famously, not all of this was Welles’ choice. His original pitch was a smaller grounded thriller set in New York City. The film it turned into was a much more expansive story set across multiple cities. Additionally, the studio ordered reshoots which Welles purposely used to make the film more bizarre. The pick up shots that were required by the studio were shot in the experimental ways to break up the long takes Welles had shot on set. Most of them clash with the long-take shooting style of the rest of the film or deliberately chop up the shots.
The situation got worse once Welles was officially kicked off the project. Once the film hit the editing bay, Welles lost complete control of the film. The film’s shooting script was rearranged so scenes were edited out of order. The composed music tracks added to the film were goofy and atonal and the sound mixing was bizarrely missing sound effects layers in many scenes. It’s hard to overstate just how deeply the studio botched the edit. It’s a miracle the final product isn’t a total train wreck.
Still, some of these elements were Welles’ choices. Welles certainly chose Michael O’Hara’s goofy “Irish” accent that is somewhat hard to take seriously, even if I can’t deny I enjoyed it. Thankfully the other performances are more solid. Rita Haworth and Everett Sloane deliver some of their career best work as Arthur and Rosalie Bannister.
Really that inconsistency captures what makes The Lady from Shanghai interesting! The version that made it to theaters is so uneven in almost all of it’s aspects that it’s hard to call it any sort of masterpiece but the great parts are legitimately great. The famous mirror maze shootout at the finale, alone, is one of the most memorable and beloved scenes in cinematic history. The courtroom scenes are excellent. Most of the supporting actors are giving everything they have to make their performances original.
Alternatively there are goofy scenes and editing errors all over the place. ADR often doesn’t match the lip-sync in multiple scenes and was likely changed to smooth over the story changes in post. As one of the other members of the lecture pointed out, Welles looks distracted for the entire films doesn’t really fit the role of an attractive leading man that such a story needs. You almost need someone fit, muscular and a bit dim in the lead role. Orson Welles was rotund, tall and witty. He doesn’t play the hapless victim well and it’s clear that the experience of shooting the film kept his mind off his performance at times.
Still, the film we have is excellent! The Lady From Shanghai, for all of it’s faults and curiosities, is a genuine Hollywood classic. It might not be the first film an uninitiated Welles fan should check out but it’s well worth the watch for seasoned cinephiles!
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