Combustible Celluloid Review - The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King, Orson Welles, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, Carl Frank, Louis Merrill, Evelyn Ellis, Harry Shannon
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With: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, Carl Frank, Louis Merrill, Evelyn Ellis, Harry Shannon
Written by: Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 87
Date: 12/23/1947

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

House of Mirrors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Orson Welles is so often identified as a legendary filmmaker that sometimes his performances are overlooked. Case in point: his Michael O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai. He's a roughneck Irish sailor with no real home and very often no job. His latest employer, Rita Hayworth, keeps emphasizing how big and strong he is. We don't often associate "big and strong" with Orson Welles, but we buy it here.

Of course, The Lady from Shanghai is also a brilliant movie, and everything in it is terrific.

According to legend, Welles pitched it to producer Harry Cohn on the phone hoping for some quick cash to finish his theatrical production Around the World in 80 Days. A copy of Sherwood King's novel The Lady from Shanghai was nearby and Welles sung its praises without even knowing what it was about. But it got him a job, his last for a major Hollywood studio until Touch of Evil ten years later.

Welles' Michael O'Hara saves Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a mugging in the park, and she subsequently hires him to work on her husband's boat. Her husband (Everett Sloane) is a rich lawyer, a twisted old rat who lurches around on two canes. Elsa flirts with Michael just enough to get him interested and to start him down the road to hell. When he thinks he has a chance with her; that she will run off with him, he accepts a shady deal to murder a man for money -- and winds up framed. He escapes from his own trial and winds up with the usual suspects in the house of mirrors at San Francisco's now defunct Playland.

That mirror sequence is one of Welles' most memorable, using the reflections in all kinds of surreal and spooky ways, enlarging them, duplicating them, etc. It recalls the climactic shot of Citizen Kane when the decrepit Kane walks in front of the series of mirrors.

The rest of the film is just as bizarre. Welles films the entire picture as if in a house of mirrors. Everything feels distorted, and sounds are often too loud or too soft. In one creepy scene, George Grisby (Glenn Anders) proposes the murder plot to Michael. Welles finishes it off with a shot of Grisby looking over Michael's shoulder, too high to meet his eye, and suddenly yelping the line, "so long fella!" accompanied by a burst of music. The look on Michael's bewildered face reflects just how we feel at that moment.

Because Welles cast his ex-wife Hayworth in the female role, and cut and bleached her trademark wavy red hair, the film was seen as a kind of attack on her. It subsequently failed at the box office. Fortunately, it's now one of Welles' easiest films to see (after Kane). It's frequently revived and available on a great DVD, and it's only available in one definitive cut, as opposed to the various different versions of Othello, Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil.

Thankfully, the growing popularity of The Lady from Shanghai might also help dispel the myth that Welles never made anything good after Kane. If only his other ten features were so readily available.

Columbia Tri/Star's 2000 DVD release comes with a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich, and a dizzying array of subtitle options: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai. The film soundtrack comes in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Other extras include a featurette, production notes, vintage advertising, talent files and trailers.

In 2023, Kino Lorber released a deluxe Blu-ray edition, packaged with a cardboard slipcase. The transfer is absolutely gorgeous, and the clear audio track matches it. Extras include Bogdanovich's earlier commentary track, plus two new ones, one by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, and one by novelist and critic Tim Lucas. All three are excellent. Other bonuses include a 20-minute interview with Bogdanovich from 2000, some brief comments by film noir expert Eddie Muller, divided into three segments that total about 20 minutes. We also get trailers for this film and two other Welles films, The Stranger and Touch of Evil, plus trailers for Jack Arnold's Man in the Shadow (starring Welles), and Delbert Mann's Separate Tables (starring Hayworth). This is Highly Recommended.

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