A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

Like most of Orson Welles's Hollywood work, The Lady From Shanghai is the product of clashing wills: Welles's and the studio's -- in this case, Columbia under its infamous boss Harry Cohn. And as usual, the clash shows, sometimes in Welles's brilliance, such as the celebrated shootout in a hall of mirrors at the film's end, and sometimes in his indifference to the material: Is there any real excuse for the farcical courtroom scene that so violates any sense of consistency in the film's tone? Welles miscast himself as the protagonist, Michael O'Hara, a two-fisted Irish seaman, complete with an accent that he must have picked up in his youthful days in the Dublin theater. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Rita Hayworth, was forced upon him by Cohn, whom he angered by having her cut her hair and dye it blond. Her Elsa Bannister is the epitome of the treacherous film noir femme fatale, but it's hard to say whether the screenplay -- mostly by Welles -- or Hayworth's limited acting ability prevents the character from coming into focus. The real casting coup of the film is Everett Sloane as as Elsa's crippled husband, Arthur, and Glenn Anders as his partner, George Grisby. I use the word "partner" intentionally, because the film dodges around the Production Code in its hints that Bannister and Grisby are more than just law-firm partners, evoking the stereotypical catty and mutually destructive gay couple. Welles insisted on filming on location, which means we get some fascinating glimpses of late-1940s Acapulco and San Francisco, shot by Charles Lawton Jr. and the uncredited Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker. In short, the movie is a mess, but sometimes a glorious mess.