MOVIE REVIEW | The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “The specifics of a movie like this don’t matter, watching great direction of great performances is more than entertaining enough.”

Shanghai 1
“Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying.”

The career of Orson Welles is a study in peaks and valleys.  With his debut movie, he gave us Citizen Kane, widely regarded as the greatest movie of all time.  WithThe Magnificent Ambersons, he may have topped it, but studio meddling means the awesome version we have isn’t as good as the phenomenal version he wanted to make.  Decades of Welles‘ career was littered with money grab slumming to fund passion pieces, many of which were never even completed.  His career is full of stories like this one, from the IMDB trivia page… ”

“According to Orson Welles, this film grew out of an act of pure desperation. Welles, whose Mercury Theatre company produced a musical version of Around the World in 80 Days, was in desperate need of money just before the Boston preview. Mere hours before the show was due to open, the costumes had been impounded and unless Welles could come up with $55,000 to pay outstanding debts, the performance would have to be cancelled. Stumbling upon a copy of If I Die Before I Wake, the novel upon which this film is based, Welles phoned Harry Cohn, instructing him to buy the rights to the novel and offering to write, direct and star in the film so long as Cohn would send $55,000 to Boston within two hours. The money arrived, and the production went on as planned.”

According to IMDB trivia, this is the story of how Welles ended up making The Lady from Shanghai.

Elsa (Rita Hayworth) is riding a horse drawn carriage through New York’s Central Park when she is accosted by three thugs.  Three thugs scared off by Irish tough guy, Michael (Welles, complete with a terrible Irish accent).  By the time he accompanies her to her destination, Michael is infatuated with the beautiful Elsa, and agrees to join the crew of the luxury yacht of her husband (Everette Sloane as Arthur) as they sale across the Panama Canal.

Once aboard, Arthur’s partner George (Glenn Anders) has a proposition for Michael.  George offers the Irishman $5,000 to help fake his own death.  With a convincing story about a murder charge being nothing to worry about due to the lack of body to be found, Michael is tempted.  The thought of using the money to run away with Elsa seals the deal.  But once wheels are set in motion and it’s too late to turn back, Michael ends up in too deep with no idea who, if anyone, he can trust.

Despite the desperation and complete lack of passion for the story that lead to Welles making The Lady from Shanghai, it’s still Welles at the top of his technical game.  With a long middle section set aboard Arthur’s yacht, Welles uses the juxtaposition of the tight quarters below decks, with the wide open spaces of the ocean above, to stunning effect.  It’s also a master class in black and white photography, with gorgeous and deep contrasts, and amazing use of light and shadow.

The story is convoluted, bordering on messy.  There were times when I realised I wasn’t sure of a certain character’s motives or end game, or a double cross had turned into a triple without me really being aware of it until long after I should have been.  But none of that ever made me enjoy The Lady from Shanghai any less.  The specifics of a movie like this don’t matter, watching great direction of great performances is more than entertaining enough.
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More gold courtesy of IMDB trivia, “The yacht on which much of the action takes place was the “Zaca”, which was rented from its owner, Errol Flynn…  An assistant cameraman, working bareheaded in the blazing sun, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. The often-drunk Errol Flynn tried to put him into a duffel bag, and Orson Welles immediately sent someone ashore to alert authorities before Flynn could bury the man at sea.”

The Lady from Shanghai
Directed By – Orson Welles
Written By – Orson Welles

Other Opinions Are Available. What did these people have to say about The Lady from Shanghai?
The Guardian
Roger Ebert
I Found it at the Movies

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