It’s immaterial to the film overall but I want to talk about how Welles compensates for projection composites looking like projection composites. He changes up his focus, sometimes focusing on the person in the foreground, sometimes not. Is it intentional? Is he really trying to compensate?
Well, the technique does compensate a little for it. The Lady from Shanghai does have, technologically speaking, a more consistent visual look as the film goes between projection composites and location shooting.
Again, it’s immaterial. It’s just one heck of a what if.
The Lady from Shanghai moves very quickly. It runs just under ninety minutes, with a present action of five or six months. However long it takes to sail from New York City to San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, with some extended stops in Mexico, plus a murder trial. There’s a lot of summary, always ably narrated by writer, director, producer, and star Welles. Welles is a world-traveling Irish sailor who meets Rita Hayworth one night in Central Park, while he’s waiting to find a ship out. Welles, who tries the Irish charm on Hayworth at first sight, ends up saving her from some muggers. He takes her to safety, they talk, they flirt, and wouldn’t you know it, she’d love to hire him on to sail her yacht.
Oh, and she’s married.
So Welles, in the first and last smart thing he does in Shanghai, says no. But when he gets another chance in the form of Hayworth’s much older husband, played by Everett Sloane, shows up to beg him, Welles takes it. He’s feeling way too young, strong, and virile comparing himself to Sloane, who’s a disabled person. He’s also an extremely wealthy lawyer. And he calls Hayworth “lover” in a way it makes everyone’s skin crawl and almost seems like Sloane knows he’s having that effect. Even though Welles is narrating the film, he never reveals his character’s hopes and dreams when he signs on to the yacht. He’s infatuated with Hayworth, yes, but he’s also got a sidekick along, fellow able-bodied seaman and not yacht guy Gus Schilling, and he soon finds out everyone around Sloane’s very, very weird. Like Sloane’s business partner, Glenn Anders, who’s a sweaty drunk.
See, Anders figures out the Welles and Hayworth thing—even more than Sloane, who’s at least passingly aware of the attraction and uses it to humiliate both Hayworth and Welles—but Anders realizes there’s more emotion behind it than Sloane expects. Welles has the heart of a poet and the fists of a six foot three Irishman. He sees through Hayworth the pin-up to the woman; see, Sloane likes it when Hayworth wears skimpy bathing suits in front of all his pals.
Sloane’s a great villain. The film doesn’t really have villains or heroes, but Sloane’s great in the villain spot. He’s cruel, calculating, immodest. He’s a major creep in a film with a bunch of major creeps—like Anders is clearly more dangerous than Sloane, but are you just underestimating Sloane because he doesn’t have use of his legs. Because there’s something else going on besides Sloane wanting to humiliate his trophy wife for being gorgeous, someone’s planning on killing him. Actually, no one seems like they’re not planning on killing him, except Schilling, who just does his job.
So those two plots go on simultaneously, plus the class commentary. See, Welles doesn’t like being privy to the goings ons of these shitty rich people. But they all love being condescending to him, even Hayworth, who runs hot and cold as far as their flirtation goes.
Then there’s a murder and then there’s a trial. There’s an action-packed, hallucinatory finale. There’s a great de facto chase sequence through Chinatown, there’s a big fight scene. An Orson Welles fight scene. He’s really good at some of it, though Viola Lawrence’s editing is key. Her editing is key for everything in Shanghai because the film only exists in its shots and angles, intrusive ones. Welles pushes the camera into faces—with the exception of Hayworth, who gets cradled by the camera, Welles’s infatuation controlling the shots. Welles and Hayworth were married at the time, which doesn’t add a real layer, but is kind of fun to think about. Especially during Hayworth’s big scenes. She’s got a handful of them and they’re all awesome. Welles gives himself the showier part, with his Irish accent—which gets amplified thanks to Welles’s audio process. All the dialogue is looped. The actors performing their lines separately from speaking them in their performance. No actual diegetic sounds, just diegetic sound effects, which the characters don’t “hear.” It gives Shanghai this detached but incredibly intimate quality. Even though that intimacy with the characters’ conversations is more often than not intrusive. The film’s very intrusive. Yes, it’s a film noir about hot cheating wives, sexy Irish lugs, corrupt rich people, and boats, but it’s also this careful examination and evaluation of its characters and what they represent and what they don’t and how the disconnects affect them.
So, it’s a tad misanthropic. But deservedly.
The best performance is Sloane. No one else gets to be such an exceptional creep. Not even Anders, who’s a big creep. Or Ted de Corsia, who’s a little creep. But Sloane also gets more complex emotions and they get laid bare. It’s an outstanding, spectacular performance.
Then Welles, then Hayworth. Welles, director and screenwriter, showcases Hayworth for narrative impact and effectiveness. It means she doesn’t get as good of a part as Welles, actor. But even if her part isn’t as good overall—meaning she can’t give a better performance because he’s written and directed it so she can’t—he does give her far better shot composition than anyone else in the film. He’s not just cradling her for that infatuation angle, he’s also amplifying her deliveries. So Hayworth still manages to have a “movie star” performance in this movie without the possibility of movie star performances. Welles doesn’t compose shots for them.
Anders is great; Schilling is good, Erskine Sanford is fun as the judge. Evelyn Ellis is excellent as Sloane’s maid. She’s a Black woman with a very hard life and Sloane exploits her and brags to everyone about it. In front of her.
Because he’s an incredible creep.
Great photography from Charles Lawton Jr. There’s a lot of stuff in Lady from Shanghai. Almost everything except Shanghai. Lawton shoots it all beautifully. The end action sequence is singular, thanks to Welles, Lawton, and Lawrence. The cuts and the lights are integral to its success. And it is a success. So good.
Welles, Sloane, Hayworth, the supporting cast, the crew, they make something special. The Lady from Shanghai is fantastic.
Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Gus Schilling (Goldie), and Erskine Sanford (judge).