Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews, Orson Welles

The Lady From Shanghai

[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….

Such was Welles’ cinematic estate in 1947 when, with a disastrous New York show and a second failing marriage on his hands, he made The Lady from Shanghai. His anecdotes are rarely to be swallowed entire (on a recent TV talkshow he invented a 1924 film classic on the spot, complete with director and stars, not only fooling host Dick Cavett but sending American Film Institute scholars scrambling to unearth this previously unheralded masterwork), and this one is no exception. Welles may have glimpsed a book with the title Lady from Shanghai, but the film’s source novel has another name, and at least one commentator says that the mystery plot is adhered to more closely than we might expect. Still, the breezy gospel according to Welles is atmospherically right: The Lady from Shanghai feels as if it should have been made by mistake, created anew on the ruins of an impossible storyline. It seems a prime example of the quintessential politique des auteurs film, derived from a creative tension between the director and his material; this has been taken to mean that the worse the material, the more the director must and (if he’s an auteur, a true film author) will show his mettle or—as Pauline Kael irreverently puts it—”stuff bits of style up the crevasses in the plot.” The crevasses in the plot of Lady from Shanghai could contain ten Xanadus. But the film—the film—looms as the pivotal work of Welles’s career, one of the greatest glories of the American cinema, and undoubtedly the trashiest masterpiece in motion picture history.


“When I start out to make a fool of myself, there’s little enough can stop me.” The committedness with which Orson Welles throws himself into the narrative absurdities of The Lady from Shanghai, coupled with the prodigality of superb images and effects gathered within its structure, lends the enterprise a compelling grandeur. From the opening line we are confronted with the Pirandellian cinema par excellence. Welles’s subject in Kane and—in the largest sense—in Ambersons was Welles himself, and here he is at once poetically and explicitly concerned with the immediate present tense of his life and career. The first-person, on-camera narrator Michael O’Hara takes us back into the past while sauntering before us in a surreal present, and action and quotation become one with his “Good evenin’!—says I.” His adventure takes him from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate, drops down to him walking in the street one evening and cranes up away from him walking another avenue near another ocean on a morning much later. Mike’s wandering has been prodigious and his future is hardly a dead end; Welles’s past had been rife with achievement and promise, and the future held tangible dreams of Shakespeare and of Pirandello’s Henry IV (to be filmed for Alexander Korda, who did co-produce The Third Man). The lady from Chifu and the lady from Hollywood both begged to be written off with style.

Rita Hayworth and the Circe

And who can say that they didn’t need to be? “Once I had seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some time.” Michael’s complaint is implicitly prescribed for by the lady herself: “One who loves passionately is cured of love in the end.” But not until the end: “I never make up my mind about anything at all,” O’Hara assures Arthur Bannister, “until it’s over and done with.” What is over here? Not a lot, perhaps, to Welles in 1947: “Everything’s bad. You can’t escape it. You’ve got to deal with it, make terms” (Elsa speaking) may have been nothing more than a facetious nod to the Harry Cohns of the world, in whose hiring halls the Welleses and O’Haras sit in splendid isolation, tapping out the great American novel, envisioning the great American dream- or nightmare-film the public will not recognize. But “Human nature is eternal. Therefore he who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.” Welles may have told himself that “An empty amusement park makes a good hideout,” but in his super-stylized put-on he has really only come out of his shell: the abstraction of evil in Lady from Shanghai precisely anticipates the fables of Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and The Trial.

‘Evil’ is a word Welles tends to avoid (Touch of Evil was not his title)—his vision of human nature will not be satisfied with so judgmental, so godlike a term. Yet the figuring of a screen world is an act of godlike pretension, and Welles has been ever aware of the temptation to pay obeisance to self-image. Lady from Shanghai breaks down the whole concept, the whole aura of image (while, ironically, turning into one of the most atmospheric of motion pictures). The prime target of Welles’s attack is of course Elsa/Rita, a phony princess*, a star, an idol, and in the climactic Mandarin Theatre sequence an empty closeup mask pressed on the viewer in such silvery proximity that the awesome sterility of the vision cannot be denied. The film abounds in devastating strokes, like the two closeups, one of a yapping dachshund, the other of Elsa in yachting cap and gear, both creatures taking in the return of the drunken Bannister, both equated as grotesques. But one of the most telling is the reflection of the swimsuited Elsa poised to dive from a cliff: the reflection is circular (like the mirrors and ports that didn’t quite do anything in Journey into Fear) and proves to be caught in the lens of George Grisby’s monocular, which is dropped out of view to disclose his appreciative leer. Elsa dives, climbs out of the water, and reclines on a rock: the climbing and the reclining are rendered in two shots, both seen through the monocular/viewfinder and joined by a dissolve. It is quite possible that Grisby, like the crabbed little schoolteacher who wants “to see” at the Aquarium and at the trial, can only get his kicks by looking; but, in addition to this, we cannot ignore that the device of the monocular and the way Welles uses it carry strong references to the role of the director. (A later sequence runs: Elsa seen through the monocular : Mike seen through the monocular : George reacting with interest and a sense of dramatic possibility : Elsa and Mike brought together in one shot.) When Welles shoots the yacht over Elsa’s arched body on the rocks, one can hardly miss the link between her and the Circe. Nor can O’Hara and the director be excluded from the circle of men who become somewhat less than men under her spell.

Indeed, Welles and O’Hara are both a little apologetic about asking to be taken for a hero, and Michael enjoys no great superiority in the film, moral or otherwise. (At the end he knows he’ll be found technically innocent but admits, “That’s a big word, ‘innocent’—stupid’s more like it.”) From the moment the garage attendant looks at Elsa and sighs, “Some guys have all the luck,” and a pair of canes swing into view, Welles dispenses a fair share of bitter sympathy to Elsa’s husband Arthur Bannister. To defend against his own susceptibility to Elsa’s temptation, Michael “the able-bodied seaman” makes crueler use of the errand-running husband than he may deserve. He later insists to us that Bannister was no more helpless than he wanted to be, but the predominant tone of Everett Sloane’s characterization is sadness, profound disappointment, despair: his success, his celebrity, his displacement of “the great Jules Bachrach,” his selection and cultivation of a gorgeous wife have brought him no more satisfaction than Charles Foster Kane enjoyed; and the parallel between his and Kane’s barbarically lavish picnics scarcely needs belaboring. Regardless of the uses to which he puts his partner, O’Hara, maid Bessie, and everyone else, it is difficult to loathe a man who, warned that his murder is being plotted, shrugs off the news with a caustic “Now leave me alone. I want to enjoy myself.” If Grisby shares Welles’s visual prerogative as “director,” Bannister seeks to dominate the mise-en-scène of which he is a part. In the courtroom he controls the arena (until the D.A. calls Elsa to the stand, at which time Bannister must move to be seen around the D.A.’s shoulders) and the pacing of the dialogue. And in him is focused the crucial Welles theme of reflected identities: Bannister questions Bannister on the witness stand, and at the end, while Lawrence Butler’s extraordinary images bear out his words visually, he tells Elsa: “Killing you is like killing myself.”


When Welles returned from his South American venture It’s All True, he made some changes in the Mercury Company’s Journey into Fear, which had already been in release several months. In addition to adding the letter-writing framework, he recut the hotel balcony climax. What it played like before, we cannot say for sure, but it seems safe to assume that some already stunning footage of the action on that rain-swept ledge was further enhanced by judicious cutting and reordering (including carefully judged references to what’s going on inside and downstairs in the hotel) so that Howard Graham’s claustrophobic nightmare on shipboard is extended to the other players in the drama, especially Banat and Müller, who find themselves passing over and then flanking their quarry without quite realizing they have done so.

The Lady from Shanghai takes this experiment in persuasively disjunctive editing and extends it virtually to feature length. Welles’s first masterpieces were characterized most strikingly by long, uninterrupted takes of deep-focus compositions, sometimes with a moving camera, sometimes not. Even the long-take scenes often involved a cut or two: the lengthy take in Kane when Thatcher comes to ask Kane whether he knows how to run a newspaper ends when Kane admits he’s losing a million dollars a year: “At that rate, I’ll have to close this place”—CUT to a smirking closeup—”in sixty years.” End sequence. The cut serves to shift direction, suggest a new development or, in this case, announce that Kane has reached the ironical punchline he’s been building toward.

In Lady Welles forsakes emphasis on the single-take sequence. There are long and frequently masterly shot-passages: Michael’s and Elsa’s conversation, she in the carriage, he driving; the liquid dolly into the New York parking garage and the dolly out again, with Broome and Grisby plopping into the shot like bloated undersea things; the saloon conversation with Bannister and O’Hara faced off at the extreme sides of the frame, mostly silent while Jake and Goldie talk about having an “edge,” a painting of a ship hangs forebodingly overhead, and Elsa’s theme plays on the jukebox. But in addition to the rhythms of the intact sequence Welles had already mastered, there are the mysterious, lyrical, off-kilter things he was learning to do with movements carried or counterpointed from shot to shot. The earliest example would be the passage linking Mike’s meeting with Elsa and his rescue of her: we see her purse with the hanky and Mike’s final cigarette sticking out of it; Mike’s hand seizes it. Cut to a shot of Mike holding the purse and striding obliquely toward the camera, looking past it at something. Cut to an absolutely straight angle, the camera executing a parallel dolly as it watches the young toughs dragging Elsa along. Cut to Mike, again seen at an oblique angle, but this time moving away from us and at 90 degrees remove from our previous angle on him. Why do these shots work so insidiously? What, precisely, do they do? I really cannot say and don’t care to try, not now anyway; but I do know that only one man in the cinema shoots and cuts that way.

Welles uses cutting—in this picture, at least—for two basic purposes, but the end result of both is, characteristically, ambiguity. He juxtaposes imagery but, unlike Eisenstein who wanted shot A and shot B to collide in a revolutionary dialectic and explode into concept C, and more like Fritz Lang (whose films are known to be among the ones Welles studied most closely before making his directorial debut), Welles arrives at the essential likeness or at least mutual implication of A and B. For instance, during the boat journey to Bannister’s picnic site, Welles gives us in succession: a poised, exquisitely made tropical bird; Elsa glancing about her in the canoe; a water snake slithering along the surface of the river. The three shots embody Michael’s awareness of Elsa: she is like the bird, beautiful, and seemingly in need of defense; but she is also like the snake, deadly, predatory, at one with the elemental forces of the world she moves through (a world almost entirely conveyed in terms of water, oceans, port, bridges). Similarly, a shot of a macaw is followed by a shot of George Grisby, followed in turn by a view of a crocodile opening its jaws: George is noisy, funny-looking, apparently impotent; but one cannot shake the sense that his madness is methodical, his impotence only a civilized guise of a rage to avenge, dominate, and destroy. Related are the two consecutive shots following the departure from Acapulco: a dark, viscous, poisoned-looking sea; succeeded by a distant, peaceful-looking view of the white yacht in a ray of sun on the horizon, “a painted ship upon a painted ocean,” the Circe, Elsa: a pair of images whose counterparts may be found in Coleridge. Later blonde Elsa will pin down one corner of the screen while the innocent “Black Irish” stands in the opposite angle, obscured by mesh and bars: the “fall” guy. The irony has already been prepared in the Acapulco night scene when Elsa runs out on Bannister (why, we don’t know) in the Xanadu-like restaurant above the city and descends into the town, she white against the black city. Michael has already observed “there’s a fair face to the land, but you can’t hide the hunger and the guilt.” Is its daytime image now reversed? and what of Elsa’s?

Glenn Anders as Grisbi

The other chief use of cutting is the development of those insidious, inimitable Welles rhythms (which Carol Reed does imitate in the Welles–Cotten, Harry–Holly, Charlie–Jed Ferris wheel sequence in The Third Man, made the next year). Conventionally “realistic” editing has little to do with it: Elsa is on a rock at water level, but when she dives to swim back to the Circe she does so from a cliff; a less dramatic plunge would scarcely justify the rapt observation of Grisby, O’Hara, and the camera. Her swim to the yacht takes about the same amount of time as one line of dialogue, but before we can object, Welles cuts in to such a close shot of her that we are held in the dramatic intensity of the moment. George moves to leave and is instantly seen in his boat and moving halfway down the length of the larger craft; but after Michael’s and Elsa’s passionate gamesmanship of some several moments, his obscene call (“Byebye, kiddies—sooooo long!”) reveals he has not departed at all.

Certain whole sequences operate as tours de force: the dozens of separate compositions, nearly every one a stunner, that detail the interrelationships of the four major characters during the evening on deck; especially the overlapping rituals and signals being played out: Bannister seeking to intimidate Michael; Elsa asking George for a light (he has no match); Michael refusing to turn to Elsa in front of her husband, but lighting George’s cigarette which is then passed, by way of a lubricious camera movement, to Elsa. A moment later Michael stands below listening to Elsa sing: the camera closes in on her obediently and immediately, and Michael, amid attentive crewmen and Goldie’s guitar accompaniment (the guitar—and fact of accompaniment—grotesquely exaggerated by the low, wide-angle shot), moves up the companionway through a series of circumscribing angles, coming out on deck again in a shot linking him with Elsa, and ending the sequence immersed in shadow, fascinated, horrified, helpless. Welles’s main comment on the movie in 1948 was that “At least I learned how to photograph a pretty girl singing a song”: the night scene is followed—pursued might be a better word—by a blazing sunlit scene wherein Michael regains his self-possession while a radio chorus rhapsodizes a glamour shampoo called Glosso-lusto .

But the single most stunning sequence (apart from the Crazy House finale) is Grisby’s and O’Hara’s conversation on the Acapulco cliffs. Welles’s sense of discordant flow, in the mise-en-scène and in the cutting, is exactly honed. Grisby tells Michael, “I wanna make you a proposition,” and they exchange a significant stare as they step off into the wide-angle distance, the lens rendering the movement all the more dramatic; after several comparatively straight though moving shots, they step back into the foreground at Grisby’s “What’s your guess, Michael, is the world coming to an end?” Hereafter the manic progression of Grisby’s conversation leaves O’Hara at a loss. The cuts begin to come on almost every phrase, for the ground is being adjusted right under Michael’s feet. The pacing, the winding-up of the scene, is impeccable right up to that irrational moment when, with the world falling precipitously away below them in a dizzying overhead shot, Grisby shrills: “I want ya to kill me!—So long, fella!” and winks out of the frame.

The most astounding thing about this astounding sequence is that it was made as difficult as possible for Welles—by Welles. Look carefully and you’ll see that almost every other shot is taken in a different locale; half of them are location shots made in Acapulco, half studio jobs done in front of a process screen (similarly with the scene in the Aquarium), Imagine the control required here, the lines that overlap, the gestures that require completion. Yes, yes, re-recording will smooth over the dialogue, but still—! Why pull a trick that, for all purposes, only Welles himself is going to be aware of, let alone appreciate? Because he is still enthralled with Charlie Kane’s shadow plays. Because he really believes it when he says, “The cinema is a ribbon of dream.” Because his subject is media and Orson Welles. There are other such moments in the film: the five separate shots that transfer Michael to the Bannisters’ tent; the moment when Elsa walks out of what we assume is an interior set and disappears into the very real Sausalito distance; the moment, immediately thereafter, when Bannister stops outside the bar on a process screen (not too abnormal), calls out to the real people in the foreground (pretty abnormal), and is invited inside for a beer (very abnormal). In such a film universe it is no wonder that Michael O’Hara, ducking into a chop suey shop in Chinatown, seems to rush into his own reflection coming the other way in the plate glass, or that in the final gunplay the targets can’t be told from their reflections.

The desperate irony of The Lady from Shanghai is that these tricks Orson Welles played for his private fun in Hollywood subsequently proved essential to the very preservation of the narratives of his tortuously filmed European projects, shot in snatches when there was money, spaced around actors who weren’t there, re-recorded time and again with Welles handling more of the voices than we can count. Properties like The Trial and Chimes at Midnight may seem far removed from The Lady from Shanghai, but their back entrances are accessible by way of the shoot-the-chutes at the Crazy House.

*Just to round out the extra-filmic biography of the film, Rita Hayworth soon afterward married a genuine Khan.

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Columbia, 1947. Written for the screen, produced, and directed by Orson Welles. Associate producers: William Castle and Richard Wilson. From the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King. Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr. Music: Heinz Roemheld. Special Effects: Lawrence Butler (uncredited). 87 minutes.

The Players: Michael O’Hara: Orson Welles; Elsa Bannister: Rita Hayworth; Arthur Bannister: Everett Sloane; George Grisby: Glenn Anders; Sidney Broome: Ted de Corsia; Chaim Goldfish: Gus Schilling; The Judge: Erskine Sanford; District Attorney: Carl Frank; An Assistant to the D.A.: Richard Wilson; Jake: Louis Merrill; Bessie: Evelyn Ellis; Cab Driver: Harry Shannon; Li: Wong Show Ching; Yacht Captain: Sam Nelson (assistant director).


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