[This is a slightly edited version of a program note written for an Autumn 1971 University of Washington Office of Lectures and Concerts Film Series, “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It is submitted for your consideration because The Lady from Shanghai is a cardinal film noir and the stylistic points made about Welles’s direction are relevant as noir commentary. However, the term film noir is never used; I’m sure it never occurred to the author at the time. Only a few months later, Paul Schrader’s seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir” would be published in Film Comment magazine. Then a lot of things started to change. –RTJ]
ORSON WELLES in interview: I believe you know the story of Lady from Shanghai. I was working on that spectacular theater idea Around the World in 80 Days, which was originally to be produced by Mike Todd. But, overnight, he went bankrupt and I found myself in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to take my costumes from the station because 50,000 dollars was due. Without that money we couldn’t open. At that time I was already separated from Rita; we were no longer even speaking. I did not intend to do a film with her. From Boston I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood, and I said to him, “I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me 50,000 dollars, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.” Cohn asked, “What story?” I was telephoning from the theater box office; beside it was a pocket books display and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady from Shanghai. I said to him, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later we received the money. Later I read the book and it was horrible so I set myself, top speed, to write a story. I arrived in Hollywood to make the film with a very small budget and in six weeks of shooting. But I wanted more money for my theater. Cohn asked me why I didn’t use Rita. She said she would be very pleased. I gave her to understand that the character was not a sympathetic one, and this might hurt her image as a star in the public eye. Rita was set on making this film, and instead of costing 350,000 dollars, it became a two million dollar film. Rita was very cooperative. The one who was horrified on seeing the film was Cohn.
After the not inconsiderable scandal attendant upon the filming and release of Citizen Kane, and after the preview problems and subsequent mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles suffered the further ignominy of having a film cancelled in progress: It’s All True, the grandiose documentary on Latin America…. For four years Welles, who had enjoyed guaranteed (and well-publicized) independence while working on Kane, could not get a movie job except as a performer in others’ films. In 1946 he was approached by Sam Spiegel to take a leading role in The Stranger; he asked to direct as well, and Spiegel, not wishing to risk losing his on-screen services, agreed—with the stipulation that Welles follow the script and stay within budget and schedule. Welles agreed in turn; the film was finished well within the limits specified and returned a tidy profit. This helped his reputation in the film capital but dismayed many acolytes of cinemah: here he was, lavishing his gifts on a mere suspense melodrama. Clearly an irreversible decline had set in….