sun 21/07/2024

The Lady from Shanghai | reviews, news & interviews

The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai

Sweaty seamen and a seductive siren wreak havoc in Orson Welles’ confounding film noir

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in 'The Lady From Shanghai'

There’s so much high drama and scandal surrounding the production of Orson Welles’ feverish cruise through the dark side of human nature it’s no surprise the resulting film is a bizarre labyrinthine of twists and tightly strung lunacy. Welles’s exorcism of personal and professional demons in this impassioned and witty tale of moral bankruptcy remains as compelling and confounding today as it was back in 1948.

Already on the fringes of Hollywood, Welles got himself into considerable debt on the making of Around the World in 80 Days, and in a desperate move contacted Henry Cohn, head of Columbia Studios, in order to get $50,000 to finish his film. He struck a bargain to deliver an adaptation of a pulp novel in exchange for the cash. His suggestion of Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake, which Welles simply glimpsed out of the corner of his eye while on the phone, was only the beginning of this troubled production. It found him reunited with his wife Rita Hayworth, from whom he was in fact separated at the time, while a crew member died on set with a drunken Errol Flynn purportedly trying to bury him at sea. Post-production was just as worrisome with considerable cuts being made which made the plot almost impenetrable and ensured a three-year delay before it was released.

lady from shanghai rita hayworthThis incredibly knowing film noir famously saw Hayworth cut off her long red locks and go platinum blonde for her role as temptress, which enraged Cohn who wanted to cash in on her striking look from Gilda. Hayworth’s killer performance as Elsa Bannister, her eyes shifting between deadened numbness and sparkling sincerity, cause the viewer to be as unsure of her actions as the foolish “able bodied seaman” Michael O’ Hara (Welles with an outrageously bad Irish accent) who succumbs to her charms and steps aboard her husband’s luxury yacht set sail along the Mexican coast. Mr Bannister (Everett Sloane), a defence lawyer who has never lost a case, is joined on board by the most memorable of men in George Grisby (Glen Anders).

Anders provides much of the sweaty delirium on O’Hara’s nightmarish voyage, cackling his way throughout like Margaret Hamilton’s green-faced witch in The Wizard of Oz with his repetitive use of “fella” a pointed dig at Nelson Rockefeller. But unlike in Oz, O’Hara’s path of sin and temptation is only paved with a maelstrom of greed and evil. There’s no room for any decency in Welles’s wonderfully warped and downbeat vision of humankind.

This exquisite restoration demands to be seen on the big screen. Its famous final hall-of-mirrors scene is most certainly a visual high point but the glistening seas and landscape shots in Acapulco are at once disorientating and magnificent. A vertiginous slide sequence at San Francisco’s Fun Land makes for heady viewing, whilst the chase through Chinatown is still tense and exhilarating.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for The Lady From Shanghai

There’s no room for any deceny in Welles’ wonderfully warped and downbeat vision of humankind


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters