Noirvember 2015: The Lady from Shanghai

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For the month of November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir, the American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. Next up this month is Orson Welles’ fourth film and only collaboration with his then-estranged wife Rita Hayworth, The Lady from Shanghai.

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The Lady from Shanghai is a thoroughly disappointing film, made all the more so because you know everybody involved has done better elsewhere and because there are just enough good points in the film to see how this one could have been better as well. As with all of his Hollywood films post-Citizen Kane, Orson Welles had to deal with a lot of studio interference on this film.  I’m not sure exactly how much of this contributes to the disappointing nature of this film, but regardless, a lot of this film feels listless and half-heartedly executed.

Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is a wandering sailor who save a woman from pickpockets in the park one night. This turns out to be Mr. Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), the wife of famous criminal attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). She offers him a job on their yacht, but he declines. The next day Bannister tracks him down and Michael can’t refuse taking the job. He inevitably fall in love with Elsa and gets involved in a convoluted fake murder plot with Bannister’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). He’s supposed to pretend to kill him then confess to the murder so Grisby can disappear, and Michael will collect $5000 and sail into the sunset with Elsa for his trouble. But of course, all is not as it seems, and Michael is in for a rude awakening when Grisby actually turns up dead and he’s accused of murdering him, and is defended by Bannister himself.

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What I like about this film is that it’s the first film noir that I’ve watched this month that makes use of the signature film noir voice over narration. Michael narrates the story from the future, so he hints all along the way that things are not going to turn out well for him in the end. This sense of pulpy fatalism has always been a touchstone of film noir so I was glad to see it here. Though that did mean we had to hear more of Orson Welles’ phony Irish accent which I wasn’t so happy about.

It’s very disappointing, but Welles is actually the low point of this movie. He has offered more stylized direction and more compelling performances in other films. Rita Hayworth has basically only offered one performance out of all hers that I’ve seen that I like (in another noir, Gilda), and she really doesn’t have that much to do here. The chemistry between the two of them is fine, especially given that they were in the process of divorce during filming, but they aren’t in enough scenes together to get a sense that they are really in love. However, Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane) gives a great performance here. He exudes bitterness throughout the whole film and is could not be more distinguishable from his previous role in Citizen Kane.

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The ending to this film is rightfully famous; it’s really a great set piece and one of the only times in the film that gives Welles’ expressionism a chance to shine. Other than that there are a few shots using deep focus and a few strangely angled closeups and that’s really all of you see of his directorial style. The ending is a confrontation between the Bannisters and Micheal that takes place in a carnival house of mirrors, and Michael goes through several strange places in order to get there. Then we see multiples of Elsa and Bannister, and we’re not quite sure of anything until the final shots ring out and shatter the mirrors. It just further goes to show that whatever hate is between Elsa and Bannister is far more interesting than the half-hearted love affair between Elsa and Michael and that’s because Everett Sloane is acting everyone else off the screen.

So The Lady from Shanghai is quite disappointing overall, but in a few places you get the sense that Welles actually cares about the movie he is making. Everett Sloane is definitely a highlight, giving one of the only moving performances in the film. If you want a better Welles noir, go for Touch of Evil, and if you want a better Hayworth noir Gilda is the one to see. Just watch the ending scene from this one and you’ll get almost everything you can get from The Lady from Shanghai.

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“But then I’m pretty tired of the both of us.”

Long story short: 2.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
Grantland article

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2 responses to “Noirvember 2015: The Lady from Shanghai

  1. I do agree about Welles’ accent, and it certainly is a shame that his vision was again ignored and the film was so drastically cut, from the original 2 hours 35 minutes, to less than an hour and a half. But just on the merits of the writing, The Lady from Shanghai is a favourite.
    I especially enjoyed the monologue about the sharks, which is so eloquently menacing and direct, and the confrontation in the house of mirrors is one of my favourite finales.
    Once again nice review, I’m really enjoying your Noirvember.

    • His accent is laughable, and it sort of gives the movie an “it’s so bad it’s good” vibe. But the whole thing is too good for it actually to be that.
      That monologue about the sharks is classic theatrical Welles. Definitely recalls (or prefigures) his cuckoo clock monologue in The Third Man.
      The finale is actually why I watched the movie in the first place. I saw it back in high school for the first time after seeing it referenced in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
      I’m glad you are enjoying Noirvember! I have three more titles planned for the rest of the month, so stay tuned 🙂

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