Lawrence Russell

The Lady From Shanghai (1947) writ. and dir. Orson Welles (based on the novel by Sherwood King) cine Charles Lawton Jr. edt. Viola Lawrence music Heinz Riemheld star. Orson Welles (Michael O'Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glen Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, Evelyn Ellis


All film is documentary, is verite. It documents everything the eye can see, so all that remains hidden is dream... and within dream, the subjective truth. While the narrative of Welles' The Lady From Shanghai appears obscure at times, its failures are really the material of its success. You read that the original cut was one hour longer, is lost -- so this is why it doesn't work. You read that Welles went on a drunken safari on Errol Flyn's yacht, had to scrap most of the location footage as unusable. You read that the studio interfered, brought in its own editor, shot its own inserts. Blah blah -- the usual Orson Welles saga of misunderstood genius and creative posturing.

The reason this film has art is because you are forced back into its symbolic subtext in order to understand its logic. The courtroom scene is absurd, obeys its own protocol. The judge plays chess on a huge board that makes San Francisco a mere landscape extension. The defending lawyer is allowed to interrogate himself as a friendly witness. O'Hara escapes by mingling with the jury. Where does he hide? In a theatre in Chinatown where a traditional Chinese play is in progress.

The progression of the narrative is a steady devolution from the external world into the internal world. The hero encounters the femme fatale at night on the edge of Central Park in New York as she rides in an old world handsome cab. They sail on her husband's yacht to the Caribbean, pass through the Panama Canal, malinger on the Mexican Riviera before arriving in San Francisco and an eventual resolution in the Crazy House in Play Land. While the Acapulco sequences are often lit with bright equatorial light, the settings are stagey, typical of the Welles ensemble method. The characters exist in hyperbole, figures in a nightmare, and O'Hara is the dreamer.

The plot is unconvincing, but succeeds as parody. Two lawyers indemnify their partnership with a life insurance policy covering death by misadventure, but not by suicide. The nuclear bomb paranoiac Grisby schemes to collect on the policy by staging his own murder, then disappearing to the imagined safety of a South Seas island. Elsa (Rita Hayworth), the wife of his partner, is his accomplice, but as per all film noir the lady has an agenda of her own. The double-cross occurs over the corpus delicti problem i.e. O'Hara is paid to write a false confession to the murder of Grisby but will never come to trial if no body is found. But unfortunately bodies are found and as O'Hara (Orson Welles) wryly observes as he is arrested, "The wrong man was shot. The wrong man was arrested...." Etcetera. The love chump goes down.

It's all very complicated, more so than Double Indemnity... a symptom of madness more than intellectual deviousness. As a device, the crime is decorative rather than functional, a symptom of the characters rather than the story. The action is often fragmented, a landscape of mental disorder. Grisby encounters O'Hara on a small lookout on a precipice above the ocean. He invites O'Hara to "murder him" for $5,000. Overhead angles and wide-angle close-ups render the psychology of paranoia and irrational intent. The grinning parabolic face of Grisby is clearly the face of madness... yet the grim intensity in O'Hara's pin-light eyes also suggests madness. The fatalism of the "black Irish" soul has allowed him to be drawn into an end-game which will decide his fate.

Orson Welles as Michael O'Hara Rita Hayworth as Elsa Bannister

O'Hara has a rendez vous with his lover Elsa Bannister at the Aquarium. They kiss, they walk, the sharks make sinister passes in the illuminated tanks behind. What does it mean? The fragility of existence, the absurdity of reality, the embrace of a nemesis, the lie in love? It means everything and nothing. The historical status quo of reality collapses as the background invades the foreground, the past the present, and the future is proclaimed as symbolism. This scene, in fact, transcends the film by moving you beyond the quotidian into the dream itself.

As a character, Elsa Bannister exists in stasis rather than as action, as an ideal rather as a person. A White Russian born in Shanghai, she's another beauty with a past. She shimmers in white, symmetrical like a magazine model, hallucinatory like a spirit. She never really does anything except pose... and even then, her attitude is passive, her sexuality concealed within the madonna. She's a myth, the naughty lady from the gambling dens of the East, perhaps an entity who is pursuing the brooding O'Hara as a consequence of his accidental homicide in Spain. Nothing is certain. You are left to make associations, infer connections. In the noir universe, coincidence is Fate.

dream and motivation

In 1924 Liam O'Flaherty published The Black Soul, a novel about a shell-shocked WW I vet who goes to convalesce on an island off the west coast of Ireland. The hero's name is "O'Connor", and he's a man gripped with the existential torment of the "black soul" -- as he prowls the wind-swept cliffs above the crashing ocean, he perceives it to be "all motion without meaning". Orson Welles was almost certainly familiar with this novel (he did his apprentice theatre in Dublin at the time), so you wonder if in fact he based his O'Hara character on O'Flaherty's autobiographical black soul. O'Flaherty himself was a itinerant cosmopolitan very like Michael O'Hara, a merchant seaman who was familiar with the major seaports of the world.

When Bannister goes to the seaman's hiring hall at the behest of his wife to find the man who saved her from the thugs in the park, O'Hara is seen using a typewriter. As it turns out, he has ambitions of writing a novel, although like many details in this film, this can slip past unnoticed. During the voyage, Bannister says to O'Hara, "Before you start that novel you're going to write, you better learn something... you've been travelling around the world too much to find out anything about it."

Was this aspect of O'Hara's character lost in the post-production editing? The role seems stripped of its motivation -- something which perhaps helps the dreamy, associative feel of the narrative. Non sequiturs become symbolism. O'Hara offers Elsa a cigarette -- she rolls it in a napkin, places it in her purse. In the next sequence O'Hara finds the purse abandoned in the park -- and the small pearl-handled gun. Is this a deliberate quid pro quo? "I don't know how to shoot," says Elsa when he returns it. "It's easy," says O'Hara. "You just pull the trigger."

So is the fix in from the beginning?

Arthur Bannister is "the world's greatest criminal lawyer". His caustic world-view is that of a cripple well-schooled in emotional and physical blackmail. The drunken exchanges during the Mexican beach picnic reveal that Elsa is his wife by blackmail. Here the recalcitrant O'Hara delivers his speech about the cannibal sharks, establishing the metaphor which best describes this uneasy band of travelling conspirators. Later, when O'Hara and Elsa meet at the Aquarium, he is well on his way to being eaten by his lover... but still doesn't know it. "Living on a hook takes away your appetite," he says.

As with the injured husband of Phyllis Dietrichson in Wilder's Double Indemnity, Arthur Bannister's impotence is made graphic by the two crutches he relies on. But his two most important crutches -- his wife and his partner -- turn out to be totally unreliable. You can see that Welles supported his narrative with visual symbolism... yet key moments remain verbalized and obscure.

Elsa enters the Hall of Mirrors Bannister shoots The Lady From Shanghai

Grisby shoots the blackmailing houseboy/detective/spy Broom... O'Hara shoots into the air as he fakes a murder... Elsa (off camera) shoots her fellow conspirator and paranoid Grisby... in the Magic Mirror Maze, the avenging Bannister shoots Elsa... who also shoots him... and Elsa dies waxing poetic ("Give my love to the dawn"), multiplied and screaming ("I don't wanna die") in the fragmented shards of glass. This vortex of bungled desires and fatal personae concludes as a tableaux of dream symbolism. Free of his nightmare at last, O'Hara exits the Crazy House.

The recent superb DVD release (2000) of The Lady From Shanghai contains a very interesting interview with the film maker Peter Bogdonovitch, a sympathetic aficionado of the Welles oevre. While drawing attention to the film's innovative scenes and some of the political history behind the making and release of the film, he remarks that when he first saw it, "it blew me away." Exactly. For those people seeking expressionist departures from the rigid formalism of the Hollywood narrative, The Lady From Shanghai becomes the watershed film feature of its time.

© LR 11/2000


reviews | noir files | e-mail LR | culture court

Film Court | copyright 2000 | Lawrence Russell