Sunday 25 May 2014

Movie Review: The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

A ponderous film noir, The Lady From Shanghai enjoys some brilliant directorial touches from Orson Welles, but is otherwise saddled with dingy characters and blurry motivations.

In New York City, Michael O'Hara (Welles), a tough but down on his luck and unemployed Irish sailor, rescues the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from some Central Park hoodlums. Elsa and her lawyer husband Arthur (Everett Sloane), who walks on crutches, hire Michael as a seaman on board their yacht for a journey to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Joining the trip is George Grisby, Arthur's business partner and also a lawyer.

As the journey progresses, the earthy Michael finds the Bannisters and Grisby distasteful and conceited. Nevertheless, Michael and Elsa are soon attracted to each other. But the trip takes a turn towards the bizarre when Grisby asks Michael to help fake his death for an insurance windfall, in return for $5,000. With his lust for Elsa heating up, Michael is unsure who to trust and what his next move should be, especially with private investigator Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia) nosing around the affairs of the Bannisters.

A rushed production delivered by Welles to Columbia Pictures as part of a financial commitment, The Lady From Shanghai stutters its way through the fog of a poorly defined plot. Despite containing plenty to admire, the film is fundamentally lacking a gravitational focus. Elsa, Arthur and Grisby all seem to be plotting something, but their plans remain opaque for far too long, leaving a group of sordid people behaving badly towards each other and dragging the dim Michael into their wreckage.

Ultimately too much of the over-convoluted plot is explained in a rush through off-screen narration rather than on-screen events, resulting in style asserting too much dominance over substance. Most of the film is occupied with hushed and repetitive conspiratorial conversations overlayed with philosophizing about life, love and death, but coming from the mouth of unlikable characters oozing with unexplained evil intent, the resonance is thin. At the film's centre the character of Michael is just too gullible and unsympathetic, and does not offer anything other than a reckless rush into a criminal swamp and an ill-conceived infatuation with an unavailable woman.

The Lady From Shanghai does boast one of Rita Hayworth's most attractive performances. Welles transforms his wife into a short-haired blonde ready to deal in plenty of lust and even more lies, and Hayworth responds with a buzz of understated voltage, allowing Elsa to smoulder with frustration and intent, often in fetching swimwear onboard the Bannister's yacht. Everett Sloane as Bannister and Glenn Anders as Grisby benefit from Welles' close-ups and shadows, filling the screen with a nasty partners' feud heading towards a showdown.

And it's ultimately Welles' trademark camerawork and mastery of shadows that gives the movie its appeal. Most of the scenes that matter in The Lady From Shanghai happen at night, as darkness envelops Michael's world, and Welles plays with light, fire and crisp contrasts. The film ends with a famous gunfight staged in a disorienting funhall of mirrors, Welles adding infinite repetitive reflectivity to his repertoire. Michael O'Hara was not bright enough to steer clear of his shady new acquaintances, and his penance is to see them in a nightmare of multiples, guns blazing.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

1 comment:

  1. The Lady From Shanghai is an old movie but it is a popular movie i have ever seen. The movie is mainly focus on the lady. Three years before i had seen this movie again with my family. Thanks for this movie review.


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