Film Review: ‘The Lady from Shanghai’


Simplicity is often the conduit to a perverse complexity that grows more enigmatic the longer the gaze of the enchanted is maintained. Even in its present state of butchered grandeur, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) – back in UK cinemas this week – is a joy to behold. Like everything Orson Welles produced, there’s an air of fractured menace in this film that resides outside the white noise that surrounds his presence as the poet of film maudit. Its possessed by an uneasy, frivolous wisp of a plot that ponders through the created anecdote whether our internal constructs are true enough to grasp. Welles plays wandering Irish sailor Michael O’Hara, a man too clever, too tough, but not too likable.

O’Hara stumbles across the beautiful Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in New York’s Central Park, saves her from a mugging and somehow gets roped into working on her disabled criminal lawyer husband Arthur Bannister’s (Everett Sloane) yacht on a trip to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Joining them is Bannister’s business partner Grisby (Glenn Anders), who offers O’Hara a deal to fake his death so he can escape. The film constantly eludes to the exclusiveness about the ambiguous character of lustrous exteriors, whether they be people, concepts or imagined futures. There’s also a sense of ease within the film that allows for Welles to include furtive impressions, baroque symbolism and future self-reflexivity. Time is an elemental decreasing warning which Welles feels negates the procedures of cause and effect.

Any attempt to grasp time is futile, which is why we need to unburden ourselves from plot. Does it really excite by plot, even the plot of a Welles film? If he isn’t, why should we be? Of course, one of the great grumbles with The Lady from Shanghai is that it’s nearly impossible to understand what is going on. This questioning is to lose ourselves within the incorrect notion of Welles as a filmmaker. François Truffaut claimed that Welles’ difficulties stemmed from the idea that he was a poet of cinema. He went on to explain that beautiful prose will always be accepted within cinema (John Ford, Howard Hawks) and even poetic prose (Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski), yet pure poetry – fables, fairytales – will not.

This is precisely where literature is more obviously easy than cinema; as Pier Paolo Pasolini once pointed out, “the distinction between the linguistics of prose and poetry are absolutely clear. Each one of us, just by opening a book without even reading it, understands immediately whether the book is poetry or prose.” Those connections between prose and poetry in cinema has ceased to happen, mainly because of the hegemony of Anglo­-Saxon super structures. As ever, Welles is an artist out of time and a singular presence within Cinema. As Truffaut famously wrote about the remarkable The Lady from Shanghai: “Its whole raison d’etre is cinema itself”.

D.W. Mault