On a Slow Boat to Everywhere but China: The Lady from Shanghai

Screening host and film noir czar Eddie Muller summed up Orson Welles’ brilliant THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI in one word tonight: weird. Columbia mogul Harry Cohn gave Welles his top star Rita Hayworth, and authorized an extravagant shoot on Errol Flynn’s yacht, on a voyage to Acapulco. The movie was supposed to be a cooperative, on-budget project for Welles to prove that he could be a cooperative company man. His avowed plan was to make peace with the Hollywood power brokers that had more or less banished him from the director’s chair after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.


That’s not how it turned out. The studio would say that Welles went wildly over budget and veered way out of control, that he ruined Hayworth’s pre-sold image by cutting her long red hair and dyeing it blonde, and that he turned in a ridiculous three-hour director’s cut. Welles would protest that the film was taken away from him and mutilated in the cutting room. His intricate ideas for a creative sound track were ignored, along with his complex musical ideas. In other words, another potential Welles work of genius was destroyed by unappreciative, if not downright vindictive, studio producers.



That makes it sound as if THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is a cinematic disaster, which is anything but true. It’s erratic and uneven and the leading character played by Welles himself isn’t half as charming as Welles seems to think he is. As for ruining Welles’ editing, that’s difficult to pin down. The shots themselves are so brilliant that editor Viola Lawrence can’t help but assemble them in marvelous patterns. One crazy dialogue scene high on a rock on the Acapulco cliffs may be the most spectacularly effective scene Welles ever filmed. On the other hand, we can’t believe that Welles could possibly be responsible for an amateurish-looking scene of a brawl in Central Park . It has been established that retakes were done after Welles left the production, to add more glamorous close-ups of Ms.Hayworth.


What grabs everyone about the show is its plot line, which for casual viewers is almost completely incoherent. Welles’ seafaring Irishman Michael O’Hara thinks he’s being set up as one kind of fall guy, when the  criminal conspiracy he’s been told about  is suddenly overtaken by a second double-cross. Either way O’Hara finds himself in an air-tight frame for murder, without anything remotely resembling an alibi. The brilliant but corrupt attorney (Everett Sloane) defending Michael has every motivation to let him go to the gas chamber, as he knows that Michael has been having an affair with his wife, Elsa (Hayworth).


We can see Harry Cohn tearing his hair out when he discovered that the real star of the show is Welles, which relegates the top-billed Hayworth to duty as a beautiful diversion. What really makes the story seem so incomprehensible is that most of the key exposition scenes about the schemes and frame-ups are so visually interesting that we forget to pay attention to the dialogue. It’s more pleasant to let ourselves be swept along by the chaotic flood of dynamic images. As could be expected, Welles assembles a film that could not possibly be confused for the work of another director.



The final scenes of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI hit a dizzying pace, yet manage to bring the movie to a wholly satisfactory conclusion. The moment Michael O’Hara escapes from the courtroom we’re treated to some of Welles’ most exciting sequences. Michael hides out in a Chinese theater, where we learn that Elsa’s Shanghai background is no fake — she issues instructions to her servants in Chinese. It all leads to what is probably Welles’ most brilliant scene concept ever. The killers and their patsy come together in a Funhouse Hall of mirrors, and discuss the wicked facts of their relationships as their images are multiplied in the panels of mirrors. It all seems a visual expression of Michael’s earlier fable about a pack of sharks that become so kill-crazy that they end up biting themselves. When guns are drawn, the whole world seems to explode in crashing showers of glass.


Welles’ best actors are the menacing Everett Sloane and the amazing Glenn Anders, whose intensely psychotic inducements for Michael to help him commit suicide are the performing equivalent of screeching fingernails on a chalkboard. Ted de Corsia also gets quality screen time as another schemer in Sloane’s personal entourage.


Eddie Muller praised tonight’s presentation from Sony, a new 4K digital restoration. Muller said it was the restoration’s first public screening, and even pointed out Universal’s chief of digital film work, who was on hand for the screening. The projected image was indeed flawless, and probably superior to any 35mm print that could be manufactured today. Considered the public authority on film noir, Muller’s introduction prepared the audience for, well, something entirely weird.


— And with that, this TCM blogger’s duties came to an end. The festival was a smoothly oiled machine this year; I don’t think I ran into a single unhappy attendee. Even the weather cooperated. After five years, this four-day extravaganza concept has to be judged a smashing success.