Kino releases another Orson Welles masterwork and the only strike against it is that it's not in 4K. The Lady from Shanghai ranks as one of the all-time great film noirs and its violent hall of mirrors climax remains one of the most dazzling displays of artistry and invention in cinema history. Though the video and audio transfers don't appear to be new, a substantive supplemental package and gorgeous packaging with reversible cover art set Kino's edition apart. If you don't yet own this unforgettable film, this is the release to get. Highly Recommended.
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 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. Leading the list is the legendary hall of mirrors climax, 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 pause and rewind buttons, 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 (fairly) well under closer scrutiny.
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.
Welles also wisely populates the film with a host of terrific character actors, many of whom enjoyed a long history with him. Sloane, who also appears 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 glamor 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 as many 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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The KLSC edition of The Lady from Shanghai arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with reversible cover art inside a sleeve with a matte finish. (The sleeve cover art is different from both images on the interior reversible cover.) Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
First things first. This does not seem to be a new transfer. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering from Kino, which usually heralds any remastering on its disc packaging, looks almost identical to the transfer that graces Mill Creek's 2015 Blu-ray edition. That transfer was struck from a brand new 4K restoration, so it's unlikely any additional remastering has been performed since. The Kino release adopts a slightly darker tone, which lends the image more richness and the blacks more depth, but all other elements - grain structure, print condition, close-ups - look exactly the same. Another plus is Kino's higher bitrate, which hovers around 38 mbps most of the time and ranges between 35 and 42. The Mill Creek bitrate fluctuates between the mid-20s and mid-30s, with the median around 31.
Though the Kino transfer is quite lovely, it's a shame the company didn't take this opportunity to release The Lady from Shanghai in 4K UHD. The arresting visuals and Hayworth's breathtaking close-ups undoubtedly would look fantastic in the format, and with so many high-quality 4K classic releases currently in circulation, it's surprising Kino didn't choose to add this iconic title to its already impressive UHD catalogue. What a great companion The Lady from Shanghai would have made to Kino's 4K UHD edition of Welles' Touch of Evil, but alas, I guess it was not to be.
Here's what I wrote about the Mill Creek Blu-ray transfer in 2015. My assessment also applies to Kino's 2023 edition.
"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 glamor 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...that will thrill fans of Hayworth, Welles, film noir, and Golden Age classics."
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track also sounds the same as the one on the Mill Creek release. The hiss described below seems to have been erased and some of the effects - ringing telephones, a police whistle - possess a hair more oomph, but otherwise the two tracks are indistinguishable.
"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."
Here's where the Kino and Mill Creek releases differ...in a big way. The Mill Creek disc is bereft of extras. Kino not only includes some supplements that appeared on prior home video editions of The Lady from Shanghai, it also adds two new commentary tracks and some remarks from film noir expert Eddie Muller that haven't been included on any other release.
NEW Audio Commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith - One of the most articulate and insightful Blu-ray commentators, Smith cogently analyzes The Lady from Shanghai in a largely scene-specific discussion that also examines the movie's production, how the film mocks Hollywood conventions, the evolution of Welles' style, and the role of orientalism in film noir. In addition, she talks about deleted scenes, touches upon political themes that course through the tale, notes some differences between the source novel and film, links The Lady from Shanghai to Out of the Past, outlines the studio and censor interference that plagued the picture, labels Elsa Bannister as the "most mysterious and inscrutable of femme fatales," and tries to dissect the plot and point out its incongruities. Smith's polished delivery and enthusiasm for the film heighten the appeal of this highly worthwhile track.
NEW Audio Commentary by novelist and critic Tim Lucas - While Lucas covers some of the same territory as Smith, his remarks focus more squarely on the original novel (If I Die Before I Wake) and its author Sherwood King as well as the film's extensive production history, associate producer William Castle's involvement, and myriad members of the cast and crew. He also goes into more detail about the relationship between Welles and Hayworth and draws some interesting parallels between The Lady from Shanghai's story and other novels and films. Despite the occasional overlap, Lucas' track is equally worthwhile, especially if you find this movie as fascinating as I do.
Audio Commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich - The esteemed director of The Last Picture Show and several other noteworthy movies was also one of the foremost Welles historians, and this terrific commentary, which he recorded in 2000, focuses almost entirely on Welles. Bogdanovich quotes extensively from both his colorful conversations with Welles about The Lady from Shanghai, Hayworth, Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn, and the story's themes, and a memo Welles sent to Cohn after the film's disastrous first preview in which he expresses his displeasure over the scoring and other audio elements. Bogdanovich also shares some great anecdotes, discusses Welles' personality and the enormous influence Welles had upon his own life, and talks about Welles' "dark, sardonic, satiric" sense of humor and aversion to symbolism. Bogdanovich, who died just a year ago at age 82, ends his thoughtful and engrossing commentary with this line: "I think [Welles] inspired more filmmakers to start making pictures than anybody since D.W. Griffith."
A Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich (SD, 21 minutes) - In this 2000 interview, Bogdanovich chronicles the film's production history, talks about the troubled Welles-Hayworth marriage, analyzes various scenes and Welles' style, lauds Welles' artistry, and shares details about Welles' career. Production stills and film clips enhance this absorbing featurette.
Three Comments by Film Noir Historian Eddie Muller (HD, 21 minutes) - The film noir expert and TCM host talks about The Lady from Shanghai in three separate segments that cover the film's production, its place in movie history, and Welles' mastery of the medium. Most of the information here is covered by Bogdanovich and the three commentaries, but Muller's perspective is interesting and his delivery is always entertaining.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - In addition to the film's original preview, trailers for a few other films featuring Welles and one starring Hayworth are included.
The Lady from Shanghai may be confusing, but its electrifying artistry will leave you dizzy with delight. Orson Welles' iconic film noir remains one of the genre's quintessential specimens, and while it would have been a dream come true to see it in 4K UHD, Kino's elegant Blu-ray edition earns high marks. The video and audio transfers seem to be the same ones that appear on Mill Creek's 2015 disc, but handsome packaging that includes an artistic sleeve and reversible cover art and a sizable supplemental package featuring plenty of new material set Kino's release apart from its predecessors. If you already own a previous Blu-ray edition of The Lady from Shanghai, an upgrade isn't necessary, unless you want the extras and packaging, but if you haven't yet added this hypnotic thriller to your collection, this is the release to get. Highly Recommended.