Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on a Novel by: Sherwood King
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Orson Welles blew everyone away with his ‘official’ directorial debut Citizen Kane (he made Too Much Johnson before that, but it was only originally produced to be integrated into a stage show and was never screened in cinemas until its rediscovery decades later). OK, it didn’t particularly make waves at the box office, but it was critically acclaimed and made people sit up and take notice of the precocious young director. However, Welles didn’t have much luck following that. From his follow up The Magnificent Ambersons onwards, his productions were plagued by interference from studios and he never managed to strike gold in the same way due to this. In an early review – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2011/11/touch-of-evil/, I argued that Touch of Evil might be a better film than Citizen Kane, but I saw the ‘director’s cut’ which had been re-edited in the 90’s from the original studio released version.
The Lady From Shanghai is one of these studio tampered films, with the original cut presented to the producers coming in an hour longer than the version we have today. Welles was also particularly vocal about his dislike for the score by Heinz Roemheld (a 9-page memo he wrote detailing changes which were never made can be found in this handsome dual-format set). Nevertheless, the film is regarded as one of the better studio films he made, so a Blu-Ray re-release like this is more than welcome. I’ve seen the film once before, but couldn’t remember a lot about it so was keen to revisit it.
The Lady From Shanghai opens with Irish rogue Michael O’Hara (Welles) happening across the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and soon after saving her from the hands of some muggers. They share a sexually charged horse carriage ride, following which Elsa offers O’Hara a job on her yacht. He initially refuses this as he discovers she’s married, and to a criminal lawyer to boot. However, her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) comes to see O’Hara and persuades him to take the job. O’Hara and the audience can smell something fishy, but the hard-headed Irishman decides to risk it and heads along on the couple’s cruise. Of course, he gets into a mess of trouble as Arthur and his associate George Grisby (Glenn Anders) drag him into a faked murder plot.
As you can imagine from the brief synopsis given above, The Lady From Shanghai sees Welles try his hand at the film noir genre once again after The Stranger. As such, I can’t help but compare this to Welles’ later Touch of Evil, of which I’m a great fan. In my opinion, The Lady From Shanghai doesn’t quite reach the heights of that. Touch of Evil, or at least the version I’ve seen which is supposedly more inline with Welles’ wishes than the studio released version, is a masterpiece of seedy atmosphere and uses bravura techniques to accentuate this. The Lady From Shanghai displays moments of this, but doesn’t feel as consistent.
It’s a film with several memorable and masterful scenes. The finale in particular is the film’s most famous scene. Doped up on sleeping pills, O’Hara is dumped in a funfair and the film comes to a head in the crazy house, with a climactic shootout in a hall of mirrors. It’s a dizzying and spectacular way to end the film, displaying Welles’ talent for crafting a great set-piece. Elsewhere, there’s a wonderfully farcical courtroom sequence and an unusual love scene in an aquarium surrounded by enlarged sea creatures.
It’s not as always this impressive though. The decision to make Welles’ character Irish makes for an accent almost as distracting as having Charlton Heston play a Mexican in Touch of Evil. I also found the first half a bit weak compared to the rest. What I did like about this first section though was the pervading sense of unease as O’Hara takes cautious, but unwise steps towards his own downfall, led on by some slimy, larger than life characters. It’s more of a psychological thriller in this first half, before the plot twists really kick in later on. People have talked about how the story doesn’t make a huge amount of sense as it goes on, and I’d agree with that, but I enjoyed the tangled web that was created.
It’s an odd one overall. There are a handful of fantastic scenes and there’s plenty to enjoy and appreciate through its brief running time, but it doesn’t quite have the artistic cohesiveness or raw power of Welles’ superior noir, Touch of Evil, so I always feel slightly let down by it. Film noir fans should definitely check it out though, if they haven’t already, and fans of the director will enjoy seeing further evidence of his genius, despite any interference from the studio.
The Lady From Shanghai is being re-released on 24th April by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their new Indicator label in the UK. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both excellent.
Powerhouse have also included plenty of special features with the set. These include:
– Audio commentary with filmmaker and Welles expert Peter Bogdanovich
– Simon Callow on ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ (2017, 22 mins): a new filmed appreciation by the acclaimed actor and Welles scholar
– An Interview with Rita Hayworth (1970, 4 mins): an archival interview filmed for the French TV programme Pour le cinéma
– A Discussion with Peter Bogdanovich (2000, 21 mins): the renowned filmmaker and author talks about Welles and The Lady from Shanghai
– Joe Dante trailer commentary (2013, 3 mins): a short critical appreciation
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery
– Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by film critic Samm Deighan, a chapter from William Castle’s memoirs about the making of the film, and Welles’ 9-page memo to Harry Cohn
The Bogdanovich extras are both wonderfully thorough and packed with anecdotes about Welles, who Bogdanovich had spent a lot of time with when compiling his book on the director. There is a little crossover though between his commentary and his interview. I can’t complain when both make for such necessary viewing though. Callow’s piece is interesting and passionate too. He clearly has a great love for the director’s work. The Dante commentary and Hayworth interview are both a bit too short to be more than vaguely interesting, but it’s nice that the effort has been put into adding as many features as possible.
The booklet is excellent as always too, offering up a handful of essays and interviews, as well as Welles’ original memo about changes he wanted making to the score.