Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!

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