#205. The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Rita Hayworth is terrific here, a more brooding and conventional femme fatale than she played in Gilda, but seeing her be beautiful and sultry and dangerous here kept giving me flashbacks to my doomed effort, a few months back, at screening Gilda at Tea & Poets to the usual crowd of teens. Three people showed up, all of them friends, all of them ferried in by the same sense of obligation and solidarity. It’s touching, but I cringe to remember it.

I’m still able to love Gilda, though — and while The Lady of Shanghai isn’t quite so atmospheric as that movie, and though it feels like an Orson Welles Picture, directed by and starring Orson Welles, I think I love Lady from Shanghai almost the same.

Orson Welles plays Michael O’Hara, who speaks in a bad Irish accent performed half-convincingly by Orson Welles, whose actions are accentuated with a brooding film-noir narration from the famous radio and film personality, Orson Welles. O’Hara is a scrappy boat hand for hire who meets Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) when she’s riding in a carriage through the park one night. She finds herself getting mugged farther along that same path and, after O’Hara rescues her, she offers him a job aboard the yacht where she and her husband, a hugely successful defense attorney, will be sailing around the world for a while. It takes some coercion, but O’Hara finally agrees.

A conventional noir, with its convoluted plot that gets O’Hara framed for murder and then puts him on the lam, The Lady from Shanghai feels like The Welles Show. Welles told Harry Jaglow over lunch one day that Charlie Chaplin, for all his fame and genius, was seldom invited to parties or dinners because he would always try to turn it into The Chaplin Hour, stealing the show, not letting anyone else talk for fear of being outshined (Welles even accuses Chaplin of excluding most of Buster Keaton’s outstanding performance in Limelight for the same reason).

That’s not quite what’s going on here, but there’s a self-awareness in the film that feels compounded by O’Hara’s Irish accent. The enormity of Welles’s public personality and profile makes it hard to look at him and see another character, and so stuff like the Irish accent and, in other roles like Kane, the heaps of prosthetics feel almost like we, the audience, are being asked to participate in the joke of believing what he’s jokingly portraying. I understand that his character’s Irish background is useful, as it explains how he killed somebody in the past, but it’s a bizarre choice for a performer who, at this point in his career, was probably best known for his voice. So to not only change that voice on screen but also use it to narrate the entire movie makes a viewer who’s familiar with his work (i.e. most of the 1940s American populace) look at Welles here the way one might look at Chaplin as he gets up at a party and makes a stage of the table over which people are tryna talk.

The last fifteen minutes, in which a drugged, disoriented, defeated O’Hara stumbles through halls of an abandoned funhouse is, to me, wonderfully inventive and charmingly over-the-top, with its nexus of people pointing guns at each other in a hall of mirrors. Rita Hayworth delivers a compellingly noirish monologue that shows her versatility in the genre: it’s 100% noir but both the words and delivery are completely foreign to her previous embodiment of a perfect noir heroine, in Gilda. Visually, the overlay of faces and figures in a given shot brings us to Welles’s climax of visual inventiveness. I think it’s genius.

That being said, I can totally see how somebody might see it as overkill, self-indulgence.

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