The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947) 🇺🇸

The Lady from Shanghai |

December 22, 2021

The impression we get is of a ballroom scene, endlessly repeated in an enigmatic interplay of mirrors. His hand placed firmly on her bare back, the man leads his partner (the marvellous Rita Hayworth) in a dizzying dance of death. They have played the game right to the bitter end, but it is almost midnight – the moment of truth is nigh! – and he holds her tight. Will he manage to see what exactly lays hidden on the other side of the mirror?

Eva appears before him one evening, a princess in a polka-dot dress, sitting in the back of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. We hear Irish sailor Michael O’Hara, played by Orson Welles, telling us in voice-over that once he’d seen her, “I was not in my right mind for quite some time”. When she’s waylaid by thugs, he gets the chance to show off his tough guy credentials and, hey presto, he’s a knight errant courting his ladylove. Except that this particular ladylove is a married woman. Her husband is a crippled little man with bulging eyes. You can always hear him coming thanks to the metal squeak of his crutches as he hobbles along the hallways of justice. Because, as it turns out, Arthur Bannister is also the best criminal lawyer in San Francisco! On the poster, the lovely Eva is wearing black lace gloves ending in what look like dragon claws: she is the Lady from Shanghai and she has a shadowy past. The sailor is a good guy but he’s fallen from grace, with a man’s death on his conscience.

The fairy tale turns into a nightmare as Bannister’s horse-drawn carriage turns into a yacht that whisks Michael away to Mexico. The princes and princesses onboard quickly prove to be a gang of bloodthirsty sharks, interested exclusively in money, squabbling and plotting, and who end up devouring each other. This only makes the lady from Shanghai even more alluring to Michael, although he slaps her as he goes to kiss her, to the dismay of Hollywood: how dare he slap the most beautiful woman in the world, Gilda the golden pin-up, the GIs’ favourite! Hadn’t he done enough by insisting she cut her long red mane and bleach it blonde? Was Orson Welles seeking a little revenge against the woman who was his (estranged) wife in real life as their divorce proceedings got underway?

The loving way he films her magnificent figure, however, suggests that he still loved her, offering us the sight of her siren curves through the telescope lecherously trained on her by Grisby, the lawyer’s shady partner. Her swallow dives into the silvery sea are as electrifying as her bewitching voice in the evening as she sings. It’s not for nothing the boat is called Circe.

Welles said he wanted to give the film “the feel of a bad dream”. We see him backed up on the edge of a precipice by Grisby, filmed in very tight close up, rivers of sweat running down his contorted face. He has just made Michael a very strange proposal: if Michael “kills” him, he will get $5,000, money he’ll be able to use to make a success of his plan to run away with Eva. The rogue doesn’t intend to die but to disappear into thin air while pocketing the money from the life insurance he signed with Bannister. Michael has already warned us: “When I start out to make a fool of myself, there’s very little can stop me”. The poor guy agrees to the plan. The sails are hoisted and the camera almost keels over as it climbs up the towering mast. Nothing can prevent the journey and Circe is already ploughing the waves in the dazzling Caribbean light.

The Mexican adventure turns into a film noir on the gloomy quays of Sausalito where Michael has to “kill” his man. When we next see Grisby, he really is dead, Michael’s cap gripped in his hand. In this upside-down world where the guilty man is innocent and we’re not really sure who’s dead, Michael wonders if he’s been tricked. He thinks he’s managed to get away when he meets Eva in an aquarium, but their kiss, filmed in front of various sinister creatures of the deep writhing around in the murky water – deliberately enlarged turtles, moray eels and barracudas – is interrupted by a group of schoolchildren.

“All the world’s a stage”, as reflected in the parody of the courthouse where Michael is taken to be judged. The wronged husband is defending him and Michael has to trust him. The farcical courtroom scene is noisy with laughing and sneezing and prosecutors talking over each other as the lawyer turns witness and cross-examines himself. But none of these clowns manages to get him, the wrongly accused man preferring to swallow a box of painkillers. Abracadabra!

Since the truth sometimes needs a lie, Welles hides in a theatre in San Francisco’s Chinatown under the watchful eyes of the masked actors who can’t help but notice the drugged-up member of the audience. With a flash of insight, he realises that the inscrutable Eva is the one pulling the strings, the mistress plotter.

The truth is revealed in a literally shattering scene, set not in a ballroom but in the hall of mirrors of a funhouse – a famous scene that has often been repeated since, including in The Man with the Golden Gun for James Bond’s final duel. Shards of glass rain down in every direction, just like illusions shattering. The two murderers shoot down the multiple images of their victim, one by one, until they finally kill each other for real. The bodies are overlaid, fall down and are endlessly reborn. Orson Welles merrily destroys a whole host of delusions, the false promises of, among other things, lies, money, justice and Hollywood itself, as he abandons Rita Hayworth to die alone, lying on the ground, humiliated, bathed in her own blood.

You’re not sure exactly what’s going on? Don’t worry, I don’t either! The Lady from Shanghai remains more of a gorgeous sleight of hand by a brilliant filmmaker who was also, and primarily, a master illusionist.

Check out the French version of this article.


see also Shanghai Lady (1929)