"Stupidity--not innocence, not heroism, not any virtue at all--is the major theme of *The Lady from Shanghai*. Therefore, to some viewers this film will appear to be a stupid movie. That's unfortunate, but that's Orson Welles.Everybody--EVERYBODY--is stupid in *Lady*! The Welles character, Michael O'Hara, admits he is stupid right off the bat. Elsa, played by Rita Hayworth, seems to be the cleverest of them all until the end...when she and her husband Arthur Bannister die together in the Crazy House, her husband gasping at her, "For a clever girl you make a lot of mistakes." Arthur, "the world's greatest lawyer", obviously has brains and knows what's going on through the whole story, but he's so grotesque (practically crawling through his scenes like a daddy longlegs spider) that his intellect is self-defeating: he's just one of the sharks that Welles describes in the beach scene, ravenously devouring himself. And the Grisby character...take one look at this guy and it's hard to believe *Lady* was made in 1946. Grisby's right out of David Lynch, or more like it, David Cronenberg! The judge, the folks in the courtroom...all STUPID and distorted, just like the images in the funhouse mirrors! Portraying American people in that unflattering light was just not "on" in the early postwar period. No wonder Orson Welles was being watched by the FBI during those years. Even today, many filmgoers expect movies to give them at least one or two heroic characters that they can identify with. Sorry, friends, *Lady* jumps right into your face and right into your space (like the scene with O'Hara and Grisby overlooking the ocean) and blurts drunkenly, "Yer STOO-pid too, FELLAH!" But why on earth is Orson Welles telling us we're all stupid? That's made very clear. We are blissfully living out our grubby little lives on the brink of self-destruction. "Do you believe the world is gonna end?" asks Grisby of O'Hara in that ocean overlook scene. That's the question Welles tells us we should be asking ourselves. But just as O'Hara was too stupid to ask himself a few simple questions, like "how can Grisby collect the insurance money if he's declared legally dead?", we don't ask ourselves the important questions that overshadow our silly little existences.A lot of people won't like it. They sure didn't when *Lady* was released in '48.But I love it! *Lady* was "postmodern" before postmodern was cool (before anybody knew what postmodern was)! It is deliciously self-referential: the scene in the Shanghai Low Chinese theater, with the strange Oriental play being performed onstage, instantly reminds one of all the strange characters and goings-on in the "real" story, the movie itself. But the movie itself is not real either, of course--it too is a play that reflects the bizarre world of human events, OUR world, the world of the moviegoer who seeks meaning in film and theater. House of mirrors! Movies of the '40's were just NOT self-referential, they really tried to create an alternative world that the audience could escape from its troubles into. Almost all movies then, and still most today, do not hold up a mirror to the audience. But *Lady* does. And still today many people aren't going to like what they see. "It's a bright guilty world," sayeth Welles/O'Hara.The close-ups of Rita Hayworth singing "Please Don't Kiss Me" establish her as THE most beautiful woman to have ever graced the silver screen. Sorry Marilyn, Lana, Bette, and you too Nicole. "Rita Hayworth gave good face" indeed. I'd have paid the price of the whole DVD just to have those few seconds of film. But there's so much more in *Lady* that's worth watching than the lady. Peter Bogdanovich's interview and commentary is pretty good, though as a Welles/Hayworth fan there was a good deal of stuff I already knew. But some stuff I didn't know, so I appreciated Peter's contribution.*The Lady From Shanghai* and *Gilda*...movies just don't get any better!"
juleswelles | London, England | 02/04/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The most tragic aspect of Orson Welles' career is the accepted wisdom that he only made three good films. In fact he made 13 films in a 40 year career (a tragically small number in itself) and ten of them were arguably masterpieces. That's a track record that bears comparison with anyone. The Lady from Shanghai is a classic example of a misunderstood Welles masterpiece. The studio didn't understand the plot and the film got buried; in addition it was put forward that Welles intended revenge on his ex-wife Rita Hayworth by casting her as the bad girl (in fact Welles only interest was in making a great film and Hayworth's astonishing performance merely consecrates his success).Welles fully understood the attractions, both of film noir themes (jealousy, greed, paranoia) and the mandatory visuals that go with the genre. The great cinematographer Stanley Cortez once said of Welles that he understood lighting better than anyone in the Cinema. Many scenes stand out as examples of Welles' brilliant visual invention - the lovers meeting at the aquarium and the final "hall of mirrors" shootout are just two outstanding set pieces amongst a miasma of unsettling camera angles, close-ups and deep, overbearing shadows. Welles' unique talent was in reinventing himself with every film, so whilst there are familiar Wellesian hallmarks in Shanghai (overlapping dialogue, deep focus etc) it is still a work of stunning visual originality, albeit shot in 16mm.What the french call "mise en scene" (literally "composition") was everything to Welles, so the plot (an innocent man is drawn into a web of intrigue by a woman) was less important, save to the extent that it enabled Welles to delve into the emotional dynamics of the characters. For example, the fracturing relationship between Welles' (the actor) and Hayworth's characters is dealt with in an uncommonly sophisticated manner for what is essentially a femme-fatale/innocent-chump storyline.So buy this and marvel at the work of Cinema's only natural (and greatest ever) inventor. And while you're at it, see The Trial, Othello, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake, Macbeth and The Stranger as well."
The Chimera from Shanghai
Olga Shewfelt | Los Angeles, CA, USA | 06/22/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The more one reviews the Welles' oeuvre, the more painful it becomes to watch his eternal attempts to disguise himself. This may seem a rather obvious observation, given the intrinsically autobiographical nature of Welles' art, but the boy genius was always cognizant of this confessional, which makes it all the more difficult and compelling. It seems that, for every film made after "Citizen Kane", the urge to dissemble becomes more pronounced, more helpless in its transparency and failure. From a desperate Irish accent in "The Lady from Shanghai" to the patently false beard of "Mr. Arkadin" all the way to the volumes of onerous padding that bloat his Captain Quinlan in "Touch of Evil", Welles has created the ultimate gallery of character refractions in cinema. The character of Michael O'Hara in "Shanghai", however, holds a special uniqueness in its reliance on and combination of youth, attractiveness, vigor, restlessness, sexual yearning, and finally, shrugging resignation and pessimism. This was 1948, Welles was 33 years-old, five years wed to the stunning Rita Hayworth, two and one-half years estranged from her, still pseudo-blacklisted after "Kane", just returning from a much-publicized theater flop ("Around the World"), and like always, ready and confident in his ability to deliver something that no one had ever seen before.
Welles was able to accomplish this ambition with relative frequency because of his complete fascination with film and complete understanding of it as a transformative medium. There are moments of rapture and "pure cinema" in "The Lady from Shanghai" to rival "Kane". Where else can something as ineffably sensual as the camera's flight over Hayworth's unrequited cigarette ballad on Bannister's yacht, or as ephemeral as the procession of barcos and torches to the bass thump of "Baia" in Acapulco be found on celluloid? Welles always bemoaned the brevity of the film post-studio cutting, but in truth, these moments possess just the perfect duration, and this essentially being a film about love interrupted, thwarted, and finally imploding, I suspect that Welles' pacing of most of the scenes in the movie was not entirely different.
Interruption and all its cosmic ramifications seem to be a primal force and theme in "The Lady from Shanghai". Many of the most indelible moments erupt or are born out of seemingly nowhere. The wordless scene in which a gloriously clad Hayworth sprints desperately through the deteriorating arches of an Acapulco street against the strains of a Mexican band lasts nearly half-a-minute and emanates almost inexplicably from the narrative. A man coughs ceaselessly in a courtroom, oversized marine life intrude on the central love scene, and finally, in the most conspicuous eruption, the three central characters are arbitrarily led into a hall of mirrors, where they proceed to blow the entire place apart. In short, whether the interruption is obstructive or cathartic, it throws the equilibrium off balance, and that may be why this film is so emotionally turbulent, why the playing of Welles and Hayworth at times resembles the rupturing of two adjacent membranes against one another, unable to touch without bruising themselves. The accepted interpretation of the film as a comment on the two's marriage, as a confession of the boy genius' inability to mantain a relationship with a mature, robust woman should therefore not imply that the experience of making or watching such a film is a fluid or healing one. Not even the fluidity of the film making, blithely inconsiderate of conventional and "coherent" narrative form, should suggest that. Both the allure and difficulty of the Welles canon is its destructive tumultuous self-romance and destructiveness, and "Lady from Shanghai" is no exception."
"Black Irish and a Blonde Bombshell"
Byron Kolln | the corner where Broadway meets Hollywood | 03/16/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"What was once considered Orson Welles' most notorious failure is now regarded as a classic by movie buffs. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, the story of a man driven to obsession and murder by a beautiful blonde temptress, is filled with striking imagery and amazing performances. Based on a novel by Sherwood King, the story focuses on world-weary crewman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) who literally stumbles across the path of beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), and almost on the spot he's invited to join the crew of her yacht, about to set sail on an international cruise, that soon dissolves into murder and mayhem. The plot plays like classic film noir, with many twists and turns. The film is highlighted by the famous `Hall of Mirrors' finale where Welles demonstrates the whole idea of the unknown enemy.
Rita Haywoth is sensational in one of her best roles. It is a very famous story that she was personally recommended for the picture by her then-husband Orson Welles, but studio heads regarded the project as a B-picture and thus not worthy of one of their biggest box office stars. Welles hacked off Hayworth's trademark red tresses and bleached it platinum blonde, in an effort to emphasize the fact that this was indeed a different movie, but it was also a different Hayworth, one the audience had never seen before. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was a bitter disappointment for writer/director/star Orson Welles, who felt he was sabotaged by a studio who did not trust his vision. The film was significantly edited by Columbia shortly after it's completion but was kept on the shelf for several months before it was finally released, to mostly scathing reviews.
The DVD contains audio commentary from well-known Welles fan and director Peter Bogdanovich, a featurette with Bogdanovich, the original trailer and vintage advertising gallery."
Enticing sexy dip into film noir waters
Doug Anderson | Miami Beach, Florida United States | 09/27/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Lady from Shanghi's reputation is secure as a classic of film noir but then this genre is notoriously disrespected probably because many film noirs are based on dime novels and sound like it; in order to appreciate a film noir, therefore, you have to be able to enjoy the kitschy quality of snappy dime-novel dialogue. But kitsch alone is not what makes (some) film noirs great. What really sets film noir apart from other genres is its striking, even elegant, visual style which often contrasts sharply with its stark subject matter. Film noir has a way of glamourzing corruption, and giving corruption a unique aesthetic allure all its own. Film noir probably owes something to the German Expressionist film masters (Murnau, Lang, Von Stroheim) and the Hollywood grotesques of the 20's and 30's but it absorbs and evolves these influences into a highly refined style of its own. Orson Welles is the undisputed master of the high noir style. All of his films after Magnificent Ambersons mobilize film noir methods and techniques and so Welles' reputation rises and falls with that genre that he did not create but that he perfected.
Film noir came of age during WWII and like many film noirs Lady from Shanghai is about anxieties over race, class, sexuality, and identity and, in this particular noir film, negotiating racial, social, cultural and sexual difference in an increasingly globalized world. The film takes place in several international (Acapulco) and exotic (Chinatown) settings and these strange locales allow Welles to examine how his characters respond to a diverse array of atmospheres and social/cultural settings. Welles himself plays the central character in the film, Michael O'Hara, and to do so he affects an Irish accent (another international touch) that, some critics argue, is supposed to sound false/inauthentic. O'Hara has a way of talking that sounds a bit too self-consciously literary; and though he affects a working class worldliness his yarns sound like they come straight out of Conrad (O'Hara echoes many of Conrad's colonial concerns) and Hemingway (O'Hara echoes Hemingway's anti-Franco sentiments) and so we suspect that this character has spent more time reading and writing stories than in actually working. Whether we believe Michael's Irish brogue is authentic or not we know that he is fond of creating fictions and this casts suspicions on his identity as well as on his version of events that we hear on the voiceover. Furthermore, we can see that his obsession with literature has given him a taste for the romantic and the typically masculine posturing of his favorite literary heroes and instead of making him worldly wise this just makes him all the more gullible when a pretty lady and the promise of a new adventure come along.
Elsa (played by Welles' then-wife Rita Hayworth)identifies Michael as an easy mark the first time they meet. Unlike Michael Elsa actually is worldly and we can tell she's seen and experienced a lot and that she knows a lot about the world (not just read a lot about it) and she sees through Michael's pseudo-brogue and bravura right away and knows exactly how to exploit his romantic tendencies. She sums him up and plays him from the first moment they exchange knowing glances (hers much more knowing than his). Michael prides himself on his independence and his integrity but he just can't help falling for Elsa's pretend innocence and helplessness--its just too good to resist-- and he can't help wanting to come charging to her rescue even though there are signs everywhere that indicate that Elsa is in no need of rescuing. At first Michael resists her job offer but she is a woman who always gets her way and soon Michael is one of her employee/servants just like all of the other men in the film. Michael just can't tear himself away from Elsa's dangerously seductive & corruptive charms that he willingly and perhaps willfully misinterprets as innocence and helplessness only because that version of her makes him feel better about his own true motives. Michael has been hired on as an extra hand on Elsa's husband's yacht and as soon as he steps foot on deck everyone else aboard sizes him up and begins figuring how they can use him to further their own plots. Elsa's husband Bannister is a famous lawyer and both he and his partner Grisby are, like Michael, under Elsa's spell and trying to plot their way out of captivity. As the yacht pulls out of harbor we see the word "Circe" written in bold letters on the yacht's hull.
Elsa's past is a secret only hinted at (all we know is that she was born on an island somewhere in the east & spent some time in Shanghai). She looks like the penultimate American blonde but she is not from America and her cultural reference points are decidely eastern in contrast to Michael's western points of reference; to Michael she represents the unknown and perhaps the unkowable, and this is part of her allure and also what makes her so dangerous. "Elsa" is the prototypical femme fatale and the conventions of the film noir genre tell us that things will not end well for anyone that gets too close but she's just too enticing. The most famous scene of the film has Elsa in a sleek black bathing suit diving off some perilous rocks as if she were accustomed to such danger and as if danger was her natural element. But then she lays down to sunbathe on the rocks and from the relative safety of the boat Michael looking on, anxiously aware of how dangerous she is, can allow himself the comforting illusion that she is vulnerable and that she needs saving and that only he can save her not only from all the other male predators on board, but save her from her own eastern imbued fatalistism.
Elsa is so beautiful that she has all of the men in the film believing exactly what she wants them to believe and all of them believing that they've actually got a chance with her. And the men all slowly lose their head around her. Some of the men talk down to her but still they do what she says and she has all of them plotting against each other while lighting her cigarettes. The film has been criticized for having an impossibly tangled plot but I think the point of the film is that you are never supposed to be certain or not whether Elsa is merely defending herself against the men who want to control her or if Elsa has been in control of all of them (just like she has been in control of Michael) from the start. Even at the end we still want to believe that Elsa is a victim of something, perhaps something from her past that she just can't escape, but since we don't know what her past was we have no ultimate insight into what has been driving her all along nor for that matter do we have any insight into what originary crime or sin has been driving the men all along; all we know is that the sexes and the races and the classes are at odds. Elsa remains an unknown all the way through and Michael once ensnared must realize that he too is an unknown because under her influence he has been forced to act against what he perceived to be his own true nature.
The Lady from Shanghai offers some of the most stunning visuals of any film noir I know of. The Acapulco scenes are especially exciting as the danger and unpredictability of a foreign woman is made especially inviting and exciting in a foreign land. In this film Welles offers the ultimate noir vision of anxiously uncertain men and women attracted to each other but also repelled by what they find themselves attracted to and what they find themselves doing in the name of desire. Its a film noir and that means that the film follows certain recognizable conventions but it does more than simply follow those conventions, it pushes those conventions as far as they have been pushed and explores the nature of those conventions in a more thorough way than any noir before or, arguably, since. By the end of the film the characters have become lost in their own plots and no longer know who they are and this is conveyed brilliantly with Welles use of masks & mirrors in the celebrated and luridly twisted funhouse scene which feels a bit like the famous Dali sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound but is even more disorienting & disconcerting (Spellbound was released in 1945 so it is possible, even likely, that Welles had seen it and that it influenced his own film that was made in 1946 and released in 1948). [In the extra featurette that follows the film we learn that Welles himself painted much of the funhouse props and set.]
There are a lot of bad noirs out there and these give the genre a bad name but the few good ones are among the best films ever made. Welles' reputation would be greater if film noir were better understood and appreciated not as a genre that is as cheap as the dime novels that inspired it but a genre where cinema explores its own methods and techniques. The great directors from Lang & Von Stroheim to Welles & Hitchcock to Godard & Chabrol and the other new wave auteurs have all been attracted to noir for this reason.
A brilliant film. After this film (which was a commerical flop) Welles didn't work in America for ten years and when he did return to America he made Touch of Evil (another brilliant noir film). Touch of Evil also failed to generate revenue and effectively ended Welles career as a mainstream director even though he continued to make independently financed small pictures like Othello, Macbeth, The Trial & Chimes at Midnight."