Film Review: The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

Release Date: December 24th, 1947 (France)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles, William Castle (uncredited), Charles Lederer (uncredited), Fletcher Markle (uncredited)
Based on: If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King
Music by: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia

Mercury Productions, Columbia Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Personally I don’t like a girlfriend to have a husband, if she’ll fool a husband she’ll fool me.” – Michael O’Hara

While some people label Citizen Kane a film-noir, it really isn’t. It helped give birth to a cinematic style that would very much become noir but it was really nothing more than a damn good biographical drama. That doesn’t mean that Orson Welles didn’t touch noir. He only had a handful of films in the style but he was there, contributing to it after he blessed the world with Kane.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of Welles’ noir pictures. He also worked in the noir style with Journey Into FearThe StrangerTouch of Evil and The Trial.

This film sees Welles play an Irish sailor named O’Hara who meets Rita Hayworth’s Elsa “Rosalie” Bannister when she is being harassed by some men in Central Park. They share some flirtatious banter but O’Hara discovers that Elsa is married to a powerful lawyer. Still, O’Hara decides to take a job offered to him by Elsa. You see, Elsa and her husband are sailing from New York City to San Francisco via the Panama Canal and they need a good seaman. Once on the boat O’Hara meets a strange group of high society types. He is roped into helping one man fake his own death. This doesn’t quite work out for O’Hara, who is also falling deeper for Elsa, despite being employed by her husband. There are a lot of layers, twists and turns in this film, even at less than 90 minutes.

This isn’t Welles best written picture, not that it is bad. it just has a lot going on and if you get distracted, you could find the details hard to follow. It is one of his most energetic though and frankly, I don’t think that it gets enough praise for its amazing special effects and cinematography, outside of the admiration of hardcore Welles fans.

Everything that happens in the last twenty minutes or so is cinematic perfection. The scene in the Chinese opera house to O’Hara stumbling through the funhouse to the big shootout finale in the hall of mirrors is magnificent.

When we see Welles’ O’Hara working his way through the funhouse, it is like something from the Joker’s mind. Hell, it reminds me of the final act in Batman: The Killing Joke, where Batman is working his way through the Joker’s funhouse in an effort to find Commissioner Gordon. In fact, after seeing this film, I’m pretty convinced that Alan Moore was inspired by it when he wrote The Killing Joke.

All the funhouse stuff is impeccably shot. The use of shadows and contrast is visually astounding. Welles had a love of the chiaroscuro look, as well as the crazy angles used in German Expressionist films and he utilizes both amazingly well here. Some of the funhouse shots are reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scene where O’Hara is walking and the shadows tower above him, moving sporadically is one of the best filmed sequences of the 1940s.

The Lady From Shanghai is an incredible experience in its cinematography alone. The acting is top notch, as is the direction. The story feels a bit clunky, as the schemer tries to take advantage of a legal loophole similar to the plot in Double Indemnity. But all in all, this is a really good picture.

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