Classic noir film based on the novel by Sherwood King. When unemployed Irishman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) saves Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from some thugs, she obtains him a position on her invalid lawyer husband Arthur's (Everett Sloane) yacht, as a deckhand. It soon becomes clear that Elsa now has designs on O'Hara, and also wants her husband out of the way. O'Hara, although resisting Elsa's advances, finds himself becoming embroiled in a web of intrigue and murder. The famous hall of mirrors sequence is considered to be one of the greatest scenes in film history.
Some film masterworks instantly captivate critics and audiences alike; others are misunderstood or dismissed when first released and need to germinate for years or even decades before their greatness is recognized and appreciated. Orson Welles' 'The Lady from Shanghai' most decidedly falls into the second category. A dismal failure when it premiered in 1948 (more than a year after shooting wrapped), this brooding, complex, and quirky film noir baffled the viewing public, which couldn't decipher the convoluted plot and refused to accept its revered Love Goddess, Rita Hayworth, as a cold and calculating femme fatale. (Even Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn couldn't make heads or tails of the story, and reportedly offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain it to him.) Moviegoers stayed away, yet as time marched on and tastes and styles changed, 'The Lady from Shanghai,' a wondrously realized exercise in surrealism, slowly began to receive its proper due, and now stands alongside 'Citizen Kane' as one of Welles' finest efforts.
Distinguished by meticulous craftsmanship, brilliant innovation, and excellent performances, 'The Lady from Shanghai' is one of the most visually arresting and artistic productions of Hollywood's Golden Age. This is a film-lover's film, and its dazzling imagery and impeccable technique overshadow the deficiencies and incongruence of its plot. Welles' keen eye concocts shot compositions and camera angles that often produce a sense of awe, and leading the list is the legendary hall of mirrors climax (see photos below), a brazen and bravura display of cinematic showmanship that's rarely been matched. According to Welles biographer Charles Higham, the set, personally designed by Welles, was "a marvel of art direction," containing 80 plate glass mirrors, each seven by four feet, and 24 distorting mirrors, all of them one way, so cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. could shoot through them. The sequence is so unique and thrilling, even casual film buffs are familiar with it, but it's only one of several virtuoso episodes in the movie. A tense, sexually charged encounter at an aquarium, a bizarrely comic criminal trial filled with colorful bits of business by various extras, and a frantic escape and pursuit through the bustling streets of San Francisco's atmospheric Chinatown also bolster the picture's excitement quotient. Just watching these scenes unfold and waiting to see the next Welles-ian touch makes 'The Lady from Shanghai' far more interesting and pleasurable than films with more tightly structured and easy-to-follow narratives. You know you're in the presence of genius when you want to constantly hit the rewind button, so you can savor, analyze, and deconstruct a director's work, and that's exactly what happens here.
'The Lady from Shanghai' marked the first time since 'Citizen Kane' that Welles was granted complete creative control over a film, and as producer, director, writer, and star, he makes the most of the opportunity. He and Hayworth were married at the time, but their union had long since deteriorated, and though the gossip columns claimed their collaboration signaled a reconciliation, nothing could be further from the truth. They remained, however, good friends, and their potent on-screen chemistry belies any simmering animosity. In an audacious, highly publicized move, and much to Harry Cohn's horror, Welles lopped off Hayworth's trademark auburn tresses and bleached the cropped remains a brassy topaz blonde, which enhances her character's icy demeanor and predatory nature. At the time, Hayworth was without question one of the world's most ravishing women, and although many decried her new hairstyle and dye job, Welles so lovingly photographs his leading lady, her allure and beauty are never compromised. (Many of Hayworth's close-ups were studio mandated and Welles disapproved of them, but they nevertheless serve his film well.) He also wrings from his estranged wife arguably the most natural and nuanced performance of her career, allowing her to play deliciously against type and giving her a meaty role into which she could really sink her teeth. Hayworth, who heretofore often appeared amateurish in emotive scenes (even in her iconic turn as 'Gilda'), voraciously devours the part, crafting one of cinema's most memorable femme fatales, and that includes Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in 'Double Indemnity' and Lana Turner's Cora Smith in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice.'
Based on the pulp novel 'If I Die Before I Wake' (which, according to legend, a desperate Welles agreed to film in order to receive a $50,000 loan from Cohn to sustain his musical stage adaptation of 'Around the World in Eighty Days' as it limped toward Broadway), 'The Lady from Shanghai' chronicles the dark and depraved odyssey of Irish seaman Michael O'Hara (Welles), who cynically narrates the drama and constantly refers to himself as a "fathead," "fool," and "big boob." One evening, he saves a mysterious woman from a Central Park mugging and within 24 hours finds himself aboard her yacht as a crew member. That woman is Elsa Bannister (Hayworth), wife of esteemed criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a physical and psychological cripple who keeps a tight rein on his miserable spouse, much to her constant chagrin. Michael quickly fancies Elsa, who manipulates him with the dexterity of a puppeteer, and as they sail from New York to San Francisco through the Panama Canal and by way of Acapulco, his infatuation evolves into obsession. In order to secure enough cash to run away with Elsa, who can no longer bear her husband's ceaseless gibes and asphyxiating control, Michael accepts a weird and disturbing proposition broached to him by George Grisby (Glenn Anders), Arthur's strange and unbalanced partner. Soon after, everyone's lives spiral out of control, and before long Michael realizes he's only a pawn in a deadly game that doesn't look like it will end well...at least for him.
Welles' original rough cut ran almost twice as long as the final release version, which may account for the finished film's choppy feel. Yet the staccato editing style adopts its own rhythm over time, keeping things off kilter and nicely punctuating the action. The use of extreme close-ups and overlapping dialogue heighten the sense of unease and unpredictability, and location shooting in Acapulco and San Francisco lends the movie a vitality and authenticity other noir films lack. Yes, the story is difficult to follow on a first viewing, but it's well-written, often lyrical, packed with potent lines ("One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end" and "Everybody is somebody's fool" are two memorable examples), and holds up well under closer scrutiny. And unlike scripts adapted from books by Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, the plot isn't the movie's centerpiece. 'The Lady from Shanghai' is all about style, mood, and pushing the limits. Welles is the film's star, but his work behind the camera eclipses anything he does in front of it. Adopting a needless Irish brogue that comes and goes like a sea breeze on the yacht, Welles the actor seems stiff and preoccupied. (Who wouldn't be, considering all the hats he was wearing during production?) But as a director, he's fluid and focused, attacking each scene with a muscular vigor that makes his audience sit up and take notice.
He also wisely populates the film with a host of terrific character actors, many of whom enjoyed a long history with him. Sloane, who also appeared in 'Citizen Kane,' is a riveting presence as Hayworth's bitter, impotent husband who spews venom with sardonic glee, and Anders, as the unbalanced Grisby, files a deliciously quirky performance that enhances the air of unease swirling about the proceedings. Both play grotesque characters that acutely offset Hayworth's smoldering glamour and Welles' naivete. As much as the camera angles and set pieces supply essential atmosphere to the film, so too do these gifted actors.
For some, 'The Lady from Shanghai' may be an acquired taste, a movie that grows on you with each viewing. The more you see it, the more the story becomes irrelevant and Welles' artistry and creativity come to the forefront. Few films of the period take such audacious chances and succeed so brilliantly, and though it may have taken decades for the critics and public to fully appreciate it, 'The Lady from Shanghai' now receives the lofty respect it has always so richly deserved.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Lady from Shanghai' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
As gorgeous as the leading lady it so breathtakingly depicts, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, which was struck from a brand new 4K restoration of the film, is a complete and utter dazzler from start to finish. Charles Lawton, Jr.'s luscious cinematography has never looked so crisp and bold, and the exquisite contrast and clarity levels lend the image a luxurious and captivating sheen. A faint layer of grain provides an essential gritty texture and wonderful film-like feel, and only a stray nick here and there dots the otherwise pristine source material. Location shots from many 1940s movies often appear harsh and ragged, but not so here. The Acapulco exteriors and sequences photographed in San Francisco's Chinatown are perfectly integrated, so the film's hypnotic spell never snaps. Superior gray scale variance enhances depth and helps fine details pop, while deep, inky blacks intensify the film's noir elements, and gleaming whites inject splashes of vitality into the picture. The silhouettes in the aquarium sequence are especially sharp, and excellent shadow delineation keeps the eye engaged during darker scenes. Some of the opticals look a little soft, but that's to be expected, yet most of those complex shots sport an impressive degree of smoothness and clarity. Welles employs several extreme close-ups during the movie and they're all exceptionally well defined. Hayworth's glamour is showcased to the hilt through a series of breathtaking tight shots, and close-ups of the character actors are equally striking, spotlighting beads of sweat, facial stubble, and weathered visages. No noise or crush creep into the picture, even during its darkest moments, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. This is a fantastic effort from Columbia/Mill Creek that will thrill fans of Hayworth, Welles, film noir, and Golden Age classics.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track outputs clear, well-modulated sound that possesses a good deal of weight and resonance. Heinz Roemheld's score isn't anything to write home about (Welles reportedly wasn't too happy with it either), but excellent fidelity lends it a pleasing fullness of tone. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, and no distortion mucks up the mix. A slight bit of hiss could be detected, but the track is blissfully free of any age-related pops and crackles. The hall of mirrors finale is a nicely rendered cacophony of crisp gunfire and shattering glass, and subtleties, such as the gentle clatter of horse hooves and faint squeak of Bannister's crutches, come across equally well. A few bits of mumbled dialogue are tough to decipher, but most conversations and even Hayworth's seductive whispers are easy to comprehend. Considering its vintage nature, 'The Lady from Shanghai' sounds surprisingly spry, and seamlessly merges with the terrific video to create a truly immersive classic film experience.
There are no supplements whatsoever, not even a trailer. Even worse, the disc doesn't include any chaptering.
'Citizen Kane' will always be Orson Welles' signature film, but 'The Lady from Shanghai' ranks a close second. Breathtakingly artistic and brilliantly executed, this exquisite film noir is a visual tour de force that includes several stunning set pieces, the most noteworthy of which is its knockout hall of mirrors finale, which remains one of the all-time great climaxes in Hollywood history. Sure, the plot is a bit convoluted, but the literate script, hypnotic performances, dynamite direction, and sensual allure of the iconic Rita Hayworth help us forgive any narrative flaws. Mill Creek's Blu-ray presentation doesn't include a single supplement (for such a highly regarded classic that's almost unforgivable), but the 4K restoration is a thing of beauty, and the lossless audio track is quite good, too. 'The Lady from Shanghai' is a film-lover's film, one that can be endlessly studied and dissected, and each viewing yields new joys. Anyone who appreciates the art of moviemaking needs to see this mesmerizing motion picture, which comes very highly recommended.