“The Lady of Shanghai”, directed by Orson Welles in 1947 is quite a strange film. A complete fail when it was released, a cult classic today, what can I say about it other than it is often revered by lovers of the American film noir for many bad reasons and some good ones.
Michael O’Hara – played by Orson Welles – saves the life of the intriguing Elsa Bannister – portrayed by Rita Hayworth – during an assault at night in a park. As they leave the scene of the assault, Michael reveals that he is a sailor. Elsa, the wife of the disabled, rich and renowned New York criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister, sees an opportunity to hire Michael on her husband’s yacht. Though ambivalent at first, he finally accepts the proposition. They set sail for several weeks accompanied by Arthur Bannister, his associate George Grisby and his butler Sydney Broome.
It quickly becomes obvious that Elsa has feelings to Michael – her husband not even batting an eye. Michael is also attracted to Elsa but tries to hide it, sensing the danger and the profound insanity of the human beings evolving around him.
During the cruise, George makes a curious proposition to Michael: to assist in faking his own death by murder so that he may disappear and collect life insurance, assuring Michael that as he will not actually be dead, there would be no body and therefore no evidence pointing the police to Michael. The chronically ambivalent Michael accepts the weird deal, but a series of events leads to the murder of Grisby and Broome, with a second revolver that is never found.
However, evidence is found pointing to Michael and he is accused for both murders and put on trial. Arthur, as Michael’s defense attorney, thinks that if they plea justifiable homicide they could win the case. Though, because of Elsa’s romantic ties with Michael, Arthur wants nothing more than to have Michael convicted. Michael escapes from the courthouse to find the real killer.
Let’s be honest here: the outcome of the plot is almost incomprehensible.
The real point of this film – as is often the case with any good film noir – is the character study and the nightmare that envelops the story as a whole. In the case of “The Lady of Shanghai” this sensation is perfectly achieved. Orson Welles, who was in front of and behind the camera, which went against Columbia Studios basic principles, plays with light and framing in such a spooky way that it is reminiscent of a certain European expressionism. The dialogue is chiseled so meticulously, and Michael’s voice accompanying the hero’s slow progression through the whole nightmare reinforces the sense of unreality surrounding this film.
Several moments of cinematic anthology are scattered throughout “The Lady of Shanghai”: the trial scene is memorable – Welles turning justice into an improbable farce – as is the famous final mirror scene, a perfect illustration of the pretenses behind which everyone is hiding.
Michael’s monologue to Arthur, Elsa and George, in which he recounts in such detail the story of a shark fishing so bloody that the sharks devour each other – is of unparalleled morbid power, especially when one understands that he builds a perfect metaphor directed to his audience of three.
Many shots stay in mind: the scene in which Elsa Bannister is in her black swimsuit, object of all fantasy, but somehow isolated and unattainable. Or better yet, the dizzying low angle shots of the cliffs when George asks Michael to kill him.
These are – in my mind – the good reasons for the critical acclaim of this strange masterpiece. Adding the fact that Orson Welles manoeuvers in a Hollywood studio that is completely out of his league (let’s say, a different league) renders the oddness more and more visible.
The reasons that wrongfully make this a cult film are the circumstances surrounding it: the death of a technician within the first few days of filming; the fact that the married couple Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were in the middle of their divorce during its filming; and the illness of the entire team leading to a month-long shut down of production. The film, even before its completion, wore the scent of a curse. And scandal.
It is for this film that Rita Hayworth would cut her hair short and bleach it to a platinum blond (later christened “topaz blond”, whatever it means), per Orson Welles’ request. The trip to the hair salon was highly publicized and caused quite a public stir as fans were very attached to the actress’s iconic cascading red locks since she starred in the film Gilda.
Many of whom watched this film saw it as a sadistic vengeance of a husband embittered in divorce, but I see it as his final gift. A gift given by a man who is very much in love with a woman who no longer wishes be typecast as “The Love Goddess” and wants to be taken seriously in more dramatic roles.
Personally, I have always loved this film, which I find both incredible and, at the same time, completely missing the mark. My wrong reasons for liking this film (yes, I also have wrong reasons) is the tenderness that this couple provokes in me – I admire the finesse and intelligence of an Orson Welles, I also admire the versatility of a Rita Hayworth, dancer, Fred Astaire’s favourite tap dancer and actress who wished to free herself from the influence of studios.
Whatever the case, Orson Welles has always been an alien in Hollywood. Europe will discover him later and adore him.
I may not be “The Love Goddess” but I have a black swimsuit. I present to you a much more joyful version of “The Lady of Shanghai”.
August 21, 2020
Aubade swimsuit – Chanel sunglasses – Vintage Gianfranco Ferré belt