Lady From Shanghai was Orson Welles’s fourth feature, and basically ended his Hollywood career (although of course he would do Touch of Evil seven years later). Following this production, he fled to Europe and lived there for most of his life.
Lady From Shanghai is one of Welles best films, but also deeply flawed: a twisty film noir that stars Welles as the seaman Michael O’Hara (with one of the worst Irish accents ever committed to celluloid—which is saying something, because there have been some bad ones.) He gets wrapped up with a blonde, Elsa, played by Rita Hayworth, and joins her husband Bannister’s yacht for a sea voyage. Before long he is wrapped up in a murder plot involving Bannister’s law partner Grimsby. O’Hara just wants the money to run off with Elsa, and plans to fake the murder—but nothing goes as planned. There’s a courtroom drama segment, and it all ends with the famous hall of mirrors sequence, a climax this perhaps the greatest summation of Welles’ filmmaking technique. The ending is so good that it wipes away the film’s many faults.
The film was taken away from Welles in the end—very common with his Hollywood film projects except for Citizen Kane of course. Originally William Castle had owned the rights to the original novel, If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, and script, and has planned to direct it. The film was eventually cut by Columbia president Harry Cohn, who disliked Welles’ original cut considerably due to its confusing plot (although the edits made the plot even more confusing). The original edit was done with a quite experimental view, including hardly any close-ups, and plenty of irony and black humour. Cohn ordered reshoots, wanting more studio scenes while Welles wanted more long takes on location. The in-house Columbia editor, Viola Lawrence, removed about an hour from the rough cut, so there is a lot missing, even from the much-acclaimed final shootout. The reshoots and chaos caused it to go over budget, adding to Welles’s already bad reputation in Hollywood—and extra backstab by Harry Cohn.
Welles was disgusted by the cuts and the score that was forced onto the film, and like The Magnificent Ambersons, some of the missing footage has ever been found. It’s believed to have been destroyed, but could still be out there. Strangely, the film does not have a ‘’directed by Orson Welles” credit, did he demand not to be credited?
At the time, using Rita Hayworth in the lead role was very controversial. Welles, who was married to Hayworth at the time, insisted that the famous redhead go blonde (giving Cohn, her mentor, another reason to sabotage the film). Soon after the film’s release Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce but she still spoke fondly of the film later on.
Given everything, The Lady From Shanghai bombed and was a critical disaster in the US, but it found an audience in Europe. The film critic David Kehr has described it as “the weirdest great movie ever made.” The Lady From Shanghai became a big favourite of the French New Wave in the late 50s/early 60s. It’s certainly Welles’s most overtly stylized film with the least amount of substance. Some believe that he simply became disinterred in the plot at some point, which is why it’s narratively all over the place.
That being said, it is of course beautifully filmed. It was credited to Charles Layton Jr., a master cinematographer who had shot many film noir and western movies, butRudolph Maté was also on board, the last film he would do before he became a director and made D.O.A. (he had also been the cinematographer for Gilda, the film that made Hayworth into a superstar). In addition, Joseph Walker, best known for working with Frank Capra and Howard Hawkes, also contributed.
The features include commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, who was friends with Welles, and a new interview with the actor Simon Callow. Callow has written three biographies of Welles. There’s an image gallery, the trailer, and then Joe Dante doing his “Trailers From Hell” commentary in the film (he’s a big fan). A booklet with a new essay completes the set.