erik lundegaard

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The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Beyond what the studio may have done with this picture, The Lady from Shanghai suffers because Orson Welles was probably too intelligent for his own good. He plays Michael O'Hara, a seaman, who, during a walk in the park, encounters Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in a horse-drawn carriage, flirts a bit (who wouldn't?), and later rescues the lady from three thugs. "And from that moment on," he tells us in his Irish brogue, "I didn't use my head very much."

Written by:
Orson Welles
(based on the novel by Sherwood King)

Directed by:
Orson Welles

Starring:
Rita Hayworth
Orson Welles
Everett Sloane
Glenn Anders
Ted de Corsia
Erskine Sanford
Gus Schilling
Carl Frank
Louis Merrill

Quote:
"Who're you laughing at?"
"Wait and see."

He keeps doing this in the voice-over: Telling us what a fool he was for being led down the path he was led down. The problem? Welles' dialogue is so good, and O'Hara has such amused intelligence in his eyes, that during the entire voyage around the American coast he seems pretty sharp.

Elsa Bannister turns out to be Mrs. Bannister. Her husband, Arthur (the wonderful Everett Sloane), is a famous lawyer, crippled now, and a drinker. He hires O'Hara at his wife's suggestion and then spends the entire voyage being suspicious of the two — rightly so. Initially, though, O'Hara resists cuckolding another man.

Also on board is Bannister's partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who continually baits O'Hara. "Think the world's coming to an end?" Grisby asks O'Hara, in what may be our first cinematic conversation about nuclear holocaust. "Well," O'Hara replies with a smile, "there was a start to the world sometime so I guess there'll be an end." Nice line. Later, O'Hara tells Grisby and the Bannisters, "Is this what you folks do for amusement in the evenings — sit around toasting marshmallows and calling each other names? If you're anxious for me to join the games I'll be glad to. I can think of a few names I'd like to be calling you myself." Again, smart. Only when they dock in San Francisco does he suddenly become a boob — and in such a big way it's hard to accept. I've become an idiot for women before but not to that degree.

Here's the idiot thing he agrees to: Grisby offers him $5000 to help fake his own death. O'Hara will sign a confession saying he killed Grisby, but since Grisby won't be dead there'll be no body and O'Hara won't be charged with murder. O'Hara goes along with this because he needs money to start off a life with Mrs. Bannister. Of course Grisby winds up dead. Of course O'Hara is charged with murder.

Throughout the film you get continual flashes of Wellesian genius. Sharp dialogue, camerawork full of luminescent blacks and whites, great close-ups and vertiginous camera angles. At one point O'Hara meets Mrs. Bannister at a San Francisco aquarium. It's that moment when he's being pulled into the trap, and behind him in the aquarium floats an octopus, its tentacles undulating. Perfect. Once O'Hara is charged with murder, he is referred to in the media as "an agitator." Again, perfect.

Apparently Welles wasn't fond of lawyers and it shows during the trial scenes. A man's life is on the line but the courtroom is full of gossip-lovers and sneezers. Welles goes over-the-top when he has Bannister cross-examine himself — and he goes over-the-top again, later, in the "fun-house" scene, which, while masterfully directed, gives us metaphorically what we've already realized literally. Ah, but then we get to the hall-of-mirrors. More brilliance.

The film has its weaknesses — many of which may have resulted from the studio's cuts — but weak Welles still beats almost everything else.

—January 26, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard