The Lady from Shanghai derives its tension from its almost pointed meaninglessness, which would appear to be a subterfuge for a personal expression that’s never quite achieved. Casual viewers barely familiar with the legend of writer-director-actor Orson Welles may see the comic noir as a charming diversion, while cinephiles will attempt to wrestle with it in the context of the auteur’s well-documented struggle to survive Hollywood on his own terms. Like all of the director’s films, The Lady from Shanghai is cloaked in all sorts of baggage, which includes the usual problem of post-production tinkering that was unintended and uninvited, reportedly resulting in the trimming of nearly an hour of footage in an effort to move the narrative along at a more conventional clip. More personally, there’s co-star Rita Hayworth, who was Welles’s estranged wife, and who controversially cut and dyed her iconic gorgeous red locks to a short piercing blond ’do at her husband’s insistence—a move that certain gossip insisted was intended by Welles to deliberately ruin his wife’s career.
Which is to say that many ghosts haunt this initially misleadingly slim genre film, which is driven by a self-consciously frivolous wisp of a plot that could’ve been scribbled on a cocktail napkin by the director while holding court with tales of his real-life adventures. Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a wandering Irishman who’s suckered into the heart of the resentments brewing between the show-stoppingly beautiful Elsa (Hayworth) and her aging, handicapped husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane), who’s also—hint—a wealthy and powerful defense attorney. After meeting cute with the missus in the midst of a Central Park fistfight, Michael comes to work as a laborer on Arthur and Elsa’s boat as they make their way to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. En route, Michael encounters Arthur’s partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), a potentially devious man who seems to be forever on the verge of exploding the film’s steadily escalating sexual and classist tensions. Eventually, George comes out in the open with his intentions, proposing a murder plot to Michael that’s so laughably obvious in its intent on setting him up as the patsy that he can’t help but agree to participate. Because otherwise, of course, there would be no movie.
And what an overstuffed, wondrously weird movie it is. Retrospectively, The Lady from Shanghai plays as a rough draft for Welles’s Touch of Evil, as it similarly operates as the audio-visual equivalent of a draftsman’s sketchbook, with the nearly incoherent plot serving as a springboard for a variety of self-contained vignettes, ostentatiously symbolic shots, motifs, and probable ideas for future projects. There’s the long commanding scene where Michael and Arthur discuss the benefits and perils of money that ends, in true Welles fashion, with the villain making the most sense. There’s the tranquil, baked-in sexual evil of the entire boat-trip sequence, which culminates in a ravishingly suggestive horizontal shot of a two-piece-clad Hayworth, and which appears to have later informed the tone of Roman Polanski’s debut, Knife in the Water. There’s the great absurd courtroom scene that climaxes with Arthur cross-examining himself, and, of course, there’s the legendary hall-of-mirrors shoot-out, which is known by people who haven’t even seen the film. The cherry on top of this huge melting sundae is the dialogue at large, which is almost entirely composed of quotable only-in-the-movies luxury super-star bon mots: “You need more than luck in Shanghai”; “You’ve been traveling the world too much to find out anything about it”; “Everybody is somebody’s fool”; and so forth.
But if The Lady from Shanghai falls a little short of being a classic, it’s because it often coasts where Touch of Evil soars. Where the latter is charged by a bracing sense of autobiographical grandeur (in short: Welles’s desperation as an artist at the mercy of a hypocritical studio regime merged with the desperation of his socially entrapped characters), the former dissolves into a series of willfully eccentric “bits” in place of a governing personality, which is probably a result of the studio’s interference. Too many shots in The Lady from Shanghai distractingly appear to be truncated, and so theoretically beautiful flowing compositions are broken down into inelegant montages consisting of the usual alternations of close-ups and medium and master shots. (The Stranger, a generally underrated Welles gem, is considerably more fluid.) And the film’s second half, in a manner reminiscent of Welles’s heavily re-edited The Magnificent Ambersons, collapses into a series of brief punctuations of incident that rush the viewer through to the end of the story just as it appears to be gathering gravity and motivation. Watching this film is a peculiar experience: It’s affirming in its assertion that Welles could make art out of anything, and despairing in its palpable confirmation of that art’s compromise.