Orson Welles’s dazzling 1947 film noir has a plot so complex that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn famously offered a cash reward to the lucky person who could explain to him what the hell was going on. But really the storyline is almost incidental to the disorientating inventiveness of The Lady from Shanghai.
Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a poetical lunk of a mariner, who has a truly atrocious Irish accent, literary ambitions, and a hefty punch when the chips are down. He provides the lyrical voice-over, explaining how he found himself all at sea, enmeshed in the machinations, double dealings and conspiracies of an amoral bunch of well-to-do whose idea of a good time is sniping at each other and thinking murderous thoughts, some of which are put into action.
‘It’s a bright, guilty world,’ says Michael O’Hara as he’s spellbound by the beautiful Elsa Bannister, wife of the country’s leading criminal barrister and played in enigmatic siren mode by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s soon to be ex-wife. O’Hara meets her in the park, saves her from thugs, sees her home and turns down her offer of a job crewing their yacht (tellingly called the Circe). It’s too late though, the staunch seafarer has already run aground – ‘I did not use my head, except to think of her’ – and he sets sail on the kind of voyage that could get a man killed, or at the very least, wrongly accused of murder.
Hayward sizzled and sashayed her way through Gilda; here her trademark red hair is cropped and bleached, (much to the chagrin of Cohn, who was hoping to cash in on her pinup status) as, wreathed in cigarette smoke, basking on rocks or softly singing, she sets about luring men to their doom. There’s Michael, who’s entranced by her white hot, ice cold approach to his approaches; her husband, Arthur Bannister, played by radio actor Everett Sloane, who knows far too much about her disreputable past (‘you need more than luck in Shanghai’); while Glen Anders, filled with maniacal glee, takes on the role of Bannister’s business partner. Smitten by Elsa, but keener on disappearing, he persuades O’Hara to pretend to kill him. It is, of course, a set-up, but not in any of the ways you expect.
Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.
But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’
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