United States, 1948
Directed by Orson Welles
With Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted De Corsia (Sidney Broome)
From the beginning to the end the voice-over is rarely quiet. The narrative is painstakingly told by Michael O’Hara, the lead character, who is eager to depict the context, ponders on his feelings, and finds at the right time the right explanations to the grim facts that have threatened his freedom and sanity, framing these musings into a painful personal reflection on himself. Here is a man who was just too quick to play the fool but has eventually learned the hard way to stop being a fool, hoping now to wise up. The film is therefore shaped by a personal point of view and a taxing effort of remembrance even as it shows stunning scenes and shots which most of the time the editing turns into a rather clear, intriguing story that fits the tropes of a typical noir. Words could have been overlooked, certainly reduced, in other cases, but for this film they look like a compulsive need to set the record straight by the reluctant hero of the tragedy.
That need to define, to articulate, to rationalize after the facts fits with what Michael O’Hara conveys in the images during his adventure: the out-of-job sailor is increasingly befuddled by what happens and would slowly lose his bearings – his face gets easily worried and then plainly haggard, in particular as the full horror and complete madness of what has engulfed him becomes obvious; a would-be writer, he can easily struggle for words, or on the contrary ramble in a literary, tortured way. He is a regular guy who has stumbled into a bizarre world that turned nightmarish, actually a dangerous trap that could have cost the lead’s life. The words help to make sense of the uncanny reality the images record.
The very idea of meeting a gorgeously beautiful lady as she is in a horse-driven cab touring a New York park and flirting with her before saving her from thieves seems to come straight from a run-of-the-mill novel, a romance or a crime, whatever – and the shots have an eerie quality even as the voice-over tells everything, including the lines the characters should have been heard exchanging in any other film. It does not stop there: when Elsa Bannister left the garage where she has parked her car (a place where the couple arrived quite naturally and conveniently, without the woman realizing it, a bit of luck that stretches belief) the way other characters appear and move around Michael O’Hara as he observed the car running away looks like an implausible choreography that conveys mystery even as it feels like a trick.
The events would often be shot in remarkably intricate and blatantly stylish compositions whose nature barely suggests being natural and straightforward but rather thrives on ambiguity, malaise, unreality. The extreme close-ups in particular highlight the most outrageous sentiments and miens, conveying the darkest nature of lawyer Arthur Bannister, Elsa’s husband, and his partner George Grisby in the punchiest way. These images are deliberately grotesque representations of their innate cynicism and pervert thoughts; they are cruel characters whose villainy pops up on the screen as if they were monster puppets springing from a freakish sideshow – in this regard, they herald the bizarre finale which occurs in an amusement park. Michael O’Hara’s profile is carefully cut against dark background, a neat, expressionist image contrasting with previous shots where other characters confront him, compelling the puzzled Irishman to make a response. Hovering over these disquieting images like a magical, eerie presence come the close-ups on Elsa’s face, a befuddling, bewitching and also beseeching face that has not only caught the attention of the lead character but actually ensnared him.
The hefty touch of exoticism contributes to the strange atmosphere. The improbable meeting of Michael and Elsa does reveal they have something in common, the fact they worked in the Western concessions of China. Elsa still depends on Chinese people for her affairs: an old Chinese is her driver, who at one point gives a secret message of the lady to the mariner, and the driver’s relatives would help Elsa and Michael hide away after Michael fled the courthouse where he was unfairly judged for the murder of George Grisby and Sidney Broome, the private detective on the Bannister and Grisby law firm’s payroll used as an official butler when all those folks were cruising to South America. It is in a quaint, squalid little town from that section of the Americas that the plot reaches a turning point: George Grisby offers Michael to pay a lot of money if he helps him to vanish while the passion between Michael and Elsa becomes even more ardent, stoking the jealousy of Arthur Barrister. In that foreign land fate is tipped into a highly dangerous, clearly unpredictable course, and the local atmosphere just underlines the ominous turn of events.
And there is the narrative’s details, which stretch belief. The trial, in particular, of Michael, who has been framed in the case of George Grisby and is wrongly presumed to have a part in the death of Sidney Broome (who just happened to know too much and to tell it to the wrong person), features developments that could not have been possible in all probability and stand in fact as excuses for ladling on the film a thick dose of humor, of the most farcical kind – humor, the ironic one, can easily be part of a noir but here it sounds odd, outrageous. The series of events that follows, including a long-drawn battle in the office of a judge and a performance of Chinese opera, are even more incredible though visually thrilling; they are so bold and spectacular that they manage still to fit with that extravaganza of a crime story. The finale, in an amusement park fallen in disuse and with sideshows called the Crazy House and the Mirror Maze, is a fitting conclusion to a truly nightmarish adventure: madness is made plain and masks are ripped off. As the mirrors get shattered one after another, it is the raw reality of deep-seated hatred and cold-blooded efforts at destruction that at long last appear.
Those reflections broken into smithereens obviously signal the end of illusions for a man who has been deluded by a female beauty, which brings the personal adventure back to the frame of a morality tale. But that dramatic iconoclasm is also consigning to the bin the archetypal bad characters of the noir. After having haunted the lead character and the narrative all along, Elsa is doomed to vanish. The femme fatale fails but this is more than a screenplay’s righteous conclusion: it is the story of a fiction carefully crafted to appeal to the audience and to stick to the rules of a genre that is consciously examined. To play her part, Rita Hayworth had to cut her long, wavy red hair and to get a short, smart, hairdo in a platinum blonde color: the camera feverishly captures her beauty but the actress is still cast in quite another way from the success that put her on the map in 1946, Charles Vidor’s “Gilda”. She was already a femme fatale – but with director Orson Welles she gets a rather unreal, over-the-top quality.
The carousel of surprisingly framed images and superimposed ones as the lawyer, his wife and the sailor settle scores in the Mirror Maze, jams the perception and makes Hayworth’s face appear as just an illusion whose purpose was simply to make a crime story possible and interesting thanks to this character’s way of manipulating other figures. When Michael O’Hara keeps walking, letting her dying on a corridor without mercy and rather eager to exit the place and the narrative, the shocking scene looks like the bitter end of a star that would always be the tool of entertainment and archetype of a genre whose rules have been here tweaked. The film does not really deliver a gritty tale with swagger and suspense: the crime story and the film representations readily associated with it are treated as nightmarish experiences, with any realistic edge getting blunted to make way to a deeply personal point of view, the genre’s contents becoming an extraordinary tale told the baroque way, the easy entertainment the ground for a reflection on both the way the images are fabricated and how they can still be geared to show something deeper and queerer, cinema as a medium always working on itself and in tune with tragic moods and experiences of the men.
There is of course the subtext of the real lives of Welles and Hayworth, who had been married not so long ago when she accepted to take part in this strange film but whose relations quickly deteriorated; Welles had always denied the character of Elsa was a substitute for Hayworth and a showy way to expose his resentment and anger at a disappointing wife; the claim may not be taken for granted but an assessment of the film based on Welles’ critical and artistic vision of the medium is far more stimulating in order to fully appreciate how original “The Lady from Shanghai” is, especially compared to other noirs, including his first foray in the genre, which was a flop, “The Stranger”, released in 1946.