Orson Welles is probably the most famous director with the least number of directorial credits in the history of Hollywood. He was always in trouble. Yet of the dozen or so movies he directed, three are certified classics: "Citizen Kane (1941)," "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942), and "Touch of Evil" (1958); with a couple of near misses: "Othello" (1952)" and "Chimes at Midnight" (1967); and a few also-rans: "Journey into Fear" (1942), The Stranger" (1947) "Macbeth" (1948), and "The Trial" (1963). Where does this leave his mystery adventure, "The Lady From Shanghai" (1948)," written, produced, directed by, and starring Welles? Maybe somewhere in the middle. It certainly bears in part the stamp of his genius, especially at the end, and it certainly entertains with its strange characterizations and bizarre twists. Let's say it's still worth one's while to investigate what pleasant surprises select older films have to offer that many of today's celluloid sensation seekers can only try to imitate in blood, gore, and pyrotechnics.
In the movie's accompanying featurette, director Peter Bogdanovich, a personal friend of Welles and the writer of a Welles biography, explains that "The Lady From Shanghai" though released in 1948 was actually filmed in 1946. Thus, it predates most other film noir crime thrillers and may, in fact, be the first noir film of all. It has all the earmarks of a typical noir effort--the dark tone, dark streets, dark shadows, suspicious characters, and mysterious, sultry heroine. The closest thing we've had to it in recent years is the retro detective show, "Dead Again," with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Interestingly, Branagh and Thompson were married at the time of filming, just as Welles and his costar, Rita Hayworth, were husband and wife.
Welles based his screenplay on a novel by Sherwood King titled "If I Die Before I Wake" that reportedly Welles hadn't even read yet when he promised the film to Columbia's boss, Harry Cohn. As usual, Welles needed the money and was not above fibbing to get it.
In "The Lady From Shanghai" Welles plays a tough but gullible Irish sailor named Michael O'Hara who saves a lovely stranger in distress, Elsa Bannister (a blond-haired Hayworth), from a trio of muggers in New York's Central Park. As a form of repayment, and because she appears to like him, Elsa asks her husband to hire Mike on as a mate on their yacht for a cruise to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Elsa's husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), is a rich, famous, and disabled criminal lawyer, much older than Elsa. He agrees, and the fun begins. Also aboard the yacht are Bannister's business partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), one strange, creepy guy, and Sidney Broome (Ted De Corsia), a private detective hired by Bannister to keep tabs on his wife. They aren't out sailing long before we learn that someone is out to kill Bannister and that Grisby is willing to pay O'Hara $5,000 to kill him, Grisby! Mike thinks they're all lunatics.
It turns out that Grisby wants to fake his own murder in order to collect some insurance money, and he needs Mike to help him. Mike is naive enough to fall for the scheme because he's fallen for Elsa and wants the money to take her away from Bannister; but Grisby tells him he must also sign a confession saying he committed the murder. Grisby convinces Mike that he can't be convicted because the police will never find a body. I told you O'Hara was gullible. From here on the movie takes a number of twists and turns, with plots, counter plots, and multiple murders until about three-quarters of the way through you don't know who's doing what to whom; but you suspect that somewhere in all of it there's got to be a frame-up. The story closes with a grotesque but fascinating sequence in a house of mirrors at San Francisco's old Playland-At-The-Beach.
Throughout most of the film, Welles looks wild-eyed and perplexed. His fake Irish brogue becomes annoying early on, but it's worth putting up with. The movie's symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, too. A scene of a chess game is directly followed by a shot of a courtroom photographed from above, the people appearing like chess pieces. After claiming everyone but he is nuts, O'Hara winds up facing off with the villain in the Crazy House at Playland. Trust no one, the film concludes.
Critics at the time held "The Lady From Shanghai" in low regard, and movie audiences simply ignored it. This was not uncommon for a Welles film. Almost nothing he directed became recognized for its importance until well after its release. "Citizen Kane" is the prime example, but likewise was the fate of the other films I mentioned above. Part of the problem with "Lady," however, might be that the film Welles made and the one that was eventually shown in theaters were quite different. Columbia screened for preview audiences the two-and-a-half-hour version that Welles submitted, and based on audience reaction they cut about an hour from it. Cohn didn't like the longer version, either, so it really didn't stand much chance. No one knows what the original was like because apparently the excised material no longer exists.
The film we have is still entertaining and significant, but it's a shame we can't see it the way Welles envisioned it. At least with his later "Touch of Evil" the film was restored to something resembling the director's basic intent. Not so with "Lady."
Welles always said that no great film was ever made in color. He may have had a point. When he had a cinematographer as good as Charles Lawton, Jr., working for him, the black-and-white photography makes a powerful case for Welles's claim. Notice the play of light and shadow throughout the film, the deep blacks, and the careful gradations of gray. Fortunately, Columbia TriStar's transfer brings out many of the strong tonal contrasts well, with a minimum of age specks, scratches, or lines. The location shooting--Acapulco, Sausalito, and San Francisco--looks particularly good, deeply focused and clearly detailed. From time to time one notices a fading of the image and then again some occasional darkening, as well as a little grain. There is no indication the film was digitally restored, only "digitally mastered" to the digital DVD medium, so evidently Columbia had a good print to start with.
The mono soundtrack has a slightly raspy quality and a small degree of accompanying noise, but it does its job.
In addition to the film, the disc includes a full-length audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and a twenty-two-minute featurette, "A Conversation With Peter Bogdanovich," both of which offer a wealth of Bogdanovich's personal reminiscences about Welles. Then there are a couple of talent files, some vintage advertising posters for the film, twenty-eight scene selections, and theatrical trailers for "Lady" and three other Columbia TriStar DVD releases. Typical of Columbia, the language options and subtitles are extensive: English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken; English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai captioned.
What probably would have been a standard potboiler in the hands of most other directors is given a special touch by Welles, turning the story into something worth watching if only for its slick pacing, unique camera angles, unusual character portrayals (Welles said he wanted Everett Sloane to walk with two canes in the movie, just to make him a more interesting screen figure), and superb photography. "The Lady From Shanghai" is a must for any serious film buff and a pretty good bet for regular mystery lovers, too.