The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

by Paul on February 23, 2013

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As a not so secret admirer of Orson Welles and his films, I feel I can safely and honestly say that “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947) is a disaster. I have been watching this film for years and every time I sit through it, hoping to change my opinion, I become more and moreThe Lady from Shanghai (1947) frustrated by the end. Of course it didn’t have to be this way. Once again, if everyone (and by everyone, I mean Columbia Picture President Harry Coen) would have left our cinematic “knight in shining armor” alone, perhaps “The Lady from Shanghai” would today be a masterpiece.

The plot, as confusing as it is, revolves around an Irish drifter named Michael O’Hara (Welles). While walking through the park, he meets and then saves his damsel in distress, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). O’Hara is enamored by Elsa, and even though she is married, O’Hara eventually becomes convinced to take a job aboard Elsa’s wealthy husband’s (Everett Sloane) yacht. Merciless to the allure of Elsa, O’Hara gets himself The Lady from Shanghai (1947)entangled in a murder mystery, with little hope of surviving unscathed, despite his best intentions.

Orson Welles said he would never work for Columbia Pictures or Harry Coen. The stories on the origins of this film differ slightly, with the overall consensus being that Welles was in desperate need of a substantial amount of money for his stage production of “Around the World in 80 Days”. He made a deal with Coen and the money was exchanged for Welles to write, direct and star in this film. Welles’ heart wasn’t in it at this point, but like so many of his projects, he developed a unique vision for the film he wanted to create, and fell in love with his own ideas. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly), his vision wasn’t shared byThe Lady from Shanghai (1947) Harry Coen. It seems that they disagreed on every single aspect of the film, and the foundation of the movie was doomed before filming even began.

There has been much speculation as to why Welles agreed to work with his estranged wife, Rita Hayworth, and personally I have chosen to believe that he did it with the best of intentions. Yes, he had her cut her adored hair short and bleach it blonde, but not to hurt her career (as some have insinuated) or infuriate Coen (although that does sound like fun). The truth is that Welles and Hayworth have an undeniable chemistry together, and their strained real life relationship only added to the effectiveness of their characters love hate relationship on the screen. Besides, as the femme fatale of this film, it is easy to The Lady from Shanghai (1947)believe that Welles would be captivated by Hayworth’s beauty, because it was true.

At the time the film was made Coen publicly voiced his disappointment in Welles for running long on the shooting schedule and going over budget. Truth be told, he came in under budget and on time, but Coen was unhappy with the style and approach Welles used, and forced him to reshoot many random singular shots on a Hollywood sound stage. Welles had initially avoided many close-up shots in order to change the overall feel of the film, but Coen didn’t want the glamorous Hayworth to go unappreciated. In addition to the numerous close-up’s that were forced upon Welles, he was also instructed to include a song for Hayworth, as that was customary for her films.

Then the real problems started. When Welles initially turned in his completed film, it hadThe Lady from Shanghai (1947) a running time of 155 minutes, which Coen deemed unacceptable. Coen supervised lengthy edits and ended up cutting 68 minutes of footage, leaving the film at a brisk and unentertaining 87 minutes. No wonder the final product is a disaster; it’s missing almost half of the film! How can a complex plot hold up when all the details are deleted?

I will never understand why people hired Welles to make a film and then would take it apart bit by bit. Even at this early stage in his career, everyone seemed to understand what you could expect from his films, so why hand him so much freedom during shooting, only to dismantle his work in the editing room? Of course all the footage that was removed has now disappeared and is considered lost, so there is no way to know if the film could have be good, but I can promise that the film that has been left for us is only bearable because of The Lady from Shanghai (!947)the glimpses of genius that somehow survived. Even the final climactic sequence in the “hall of mirrors” has been edited from an original twenty minutes down to about four. Although these four minutes are filled with brilliance, it is easy to see how rushed and anti-climactic it has become.

As I sit here irritated by the debacle that is “The Lady from Shanghai”, I wonder how Welles continued to make films in a system that obviously stunted his creative and artistic abilities. Did he go into every project knowing that they would destroy his vision? He was superior to many of his contemporaries, but because he didn’t follow the rules he was deemed an outsider and punished for his creativity. It’s no wonder that Welles only made films sporadically throughout his career.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Colin February 23, 2013 at 12:07 PM

I share your frustration over what the film could have been. Yet I have the opposite reaction to it – the more I see the movie, the more it seems to grow on me. I remember first catching a screening on TV when I was a teenager, and it left me pretty underwhelmed. Since then, I’ve sen it many times and learned to appreciate it more. Sure it’s a mess, but it’s still an awful attractive mess. Welles’ lovely little visual flourishes continue to charm, and the artistic ambition and innovation of the man shine through the muddle and confusion. I’d love if we had a more complete film to analyze and enjoy – even so, what we’re left with isn’t bad either.


Paul February 23, 2013 at 1:11 PM

I love the phrase, “awful attractive mess”. That perfectly describes my feelings on this film. I don’t think I could have more respect or admiration for Orson Welles and his work, and apparently I just haven’t found a way to appreciate “The Lady from Shanghai” for what it is, because I am so concerned with what it could have been.
Still, I think I have watched this film at least once a year ever since the DVD came out about ten or fifteen years ago. Perhaps in another ten years I will be ready to embrace this film more completely.


Colin February 23, 2013 at 1:59 PM

:) Remember, perseverance is a great virtue!


Paul February 23, 2013 at 5:06 PM

That saying is so true especially when watching old movies.


Paula February 24, 2013 at 8:21 AM

I find that whenever I watch any Orson Welles movie other than CITIZEN KANE, I’m wondering if I’m seeing anything like what he intended. Also, it’s interesting to think about what he would have done if he’d started making movies after the collapse of the studio system. I think we’d be looking at a career arc more like David Lynch’s. Pure speculation on my part :)


Paul February 24, 2013 at 9:06 AM

That is an interesting thought. His potential to create is seemingly endless, and without restrictions, I believe he could have accomplished anything.(Cinematically, that is.)


Teddy Casimir February 25, 2013 at 12:51 AM

One of the saddest of Old Hollywood sagas is Orson’s battle with the studio heads. It’s absolutely shameful how many of his films are missing footage or completely lost. I think your question will go forever unanswered. Who knows why he continued to churn out films even when they were radically changed from his original vision? Systematic bullying at its ugliest. That being said, I still consider The Trial and Touch Of Evil, besides his obvious Citizen Kane, two of the best films of all time.
I still need to finish The Lady From Shanghai. I started watching it a few months ago and only got through the first 20 or so minutes. It just felt like such a cheap, B-movie. Your review doesn’t really perk my enthusiasm. But I’ll watch it soon enough since it is after all from Welles.


Paul February 25, 2013 at 9:25 AM

“Touch of Evil” is a glorious film, but of course the only version that we get to see is the “restored” version. If they would have lost his footage on that one, I am guessing we wouldn’t admire it as much as much as we do today. It is sad to watch some of these films and have regrets about what happened in the editing room. Luckily with all the “director’s cuts” and “deleted scenes” we are allowed to see today, these kinds of debacles won’t keep happening.


Corey February 25, 2013 at 10:46 AM

I remember our Orson Welles discussions well and we agree on the points that his filmmaking was so incredibly hampered by the sytem. It is so sad that the extra footage has been lost…if it is ever found hopefully he nhas some director notes that would help to restor the film.

This is a silly question that I assume is a yes, but have you seen RKO 281? I thought Liev Schreiber did an excellent portrayal of Orson and like to think the movie followed the background at leats somewhat as it was a captivating film for me.

Rock on.


Paul February 25, 2013 at 12:23 PM

The more I sit here and think about Orson Welles and his illustrious career, the more I become frustrated with how things went for him. I don’t by any means consider any aspect of my life to be equal to Welles and his filmmaking, but when someone criticizes or disrupts the way I do things, I become extremely angry and then disheartened. I can’t fathom how hard it would be to turn in a film, (of which you were proud), only to discover that someone “above” you thought they had a better idea, and now they have destroyed your creative vision. (Didn’t anybody ever begin to understand that Orson Welles was smarter and better than everyone who was considered his boss?)

“RKO 281″ is a sensational film. I don’t watch it as often as I should, but every time I do get around to it, I am only more excited by the behind the scenes story. Liev did a wonderful job portraying Welles, and I was always surprised he didn’t succeed as a leading man after that film (even though it is an HBO movie instead of a theatrical one).
P.S. Just talking about all of the greatness that is Orson Welles has made me want to watch “Touch of Evil” tonight.


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