The Lady from Shanghai (1946/7)

July 19th, 2014
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Orson Welles

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders

USA 1946/47, 87 min.

Shot between October 1946 and January 1947, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI cost Columbia in the end two million dollars (200m by today’s standards), although it was scheduled to come in after 60 days of shooting, at a cost of 1.25m $. And if Columbia boss Harry Cohn would have had his way, it would have never been seen in cinemas at all (it has its first preview in April 1948).  Having watched the finished film for the first time, he promised “the first person who can explain the plot to me’ a thousand dollars. The famous DOP Rudolph Mate had to do a great deal of re-shooting of Rita Hayworth close-ups at the Columbia studios. Welles seemed not be too sure himself, but later proclaimed the film (rightfully) a masterpiece. That did not stop it flopping at the box office. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was Welles’ last film as a director in Hollywood for ten years (he would shoot Touch of Evil in 1958). And it was his very last film with his wife Rita Hayworth: they were to divorce in November 1947. During the hearing Hayworth testified: “Mr. Welles showed no interest in establishing a home. Mr. Welles told me he should have never married in the first place, as it interfered with his freedom in his way of life.” Never mind that the couple had a three-year-old daughter, Rebecca. And whilst nobody can argue with Welles’ genius; his lifelong misogyny was something to behold, as he told the French film historian Maurice Bessy “Women are stupid; I have known some who are less stupid than others, but they’re are all stupid”.

And this opinion is written all over THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. To start with, Hayworth had to loose her long mane, her trademark. Welles and Cohn made it into a publicity show, ordering the hair-dresser Helen Hunt from her honeymoon, so that she could “perform” under the eyes of the press, Welles asking Hunt to cut ruthlessly. Hayworth, now a “topaz blond”, was cast as the most evil and stupid woman on the planet: Elsa is the young and alluring wife of the crippled defence lawyer Arthur Bannister. Holidaying on his yacht in the West Indies, Elsa meets the Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Welles), and lures him on board. There, Bannister’s partner Grisby (Anders) dreams up a plot to kill Bannister, so he and Elsa can share the insurance money. They set O’Hara up as the fall-guy, but Grisby looses his nerve and kills Broome, a detective hired by Bannister to spy on Elsa. O’Hara is accused of murder and Bannister defends him, to make sure he is convicted. But O’Hara escapes from the court house, is captured by Elsa and her Chinese friends, and ends up in a closed fair ground where he watches Elsa and Bannister shoot each other to death in the hall of mirrors. Elsa begs Michael to save her life, but he wanders off declaring full of self-pity “that I might die trying to forget her”. Male paranoia of women has never been expressed more artfully. AS


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