The Lady from Shanghai
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Irish sailor Michael O'Hara saves a beautiful woman from a robbery in Central Park; she turns out to be Elsa Bannister, wife of the famed defense lawyer Arthur Bannister. Bannister offers Michael a job on his yacht, which is sailing from New York to San Francisco. During the voyage Michael finds himself attracted to Elsa; at the same time, he becomes enmeshed in a Byzantine web of intrigue between Elsa, Arthur, and Arthur's partner Grisby. During a stop in Acapulco, Grisby asks Michael to pretend to murder him once they reach San Francisco so that he can collect his share of the insurance and run away to create a new life for himself. Michael agrees, only to discover that he has been framed for a real murder; the only way out now is to allow none other than Arthur Bannister himself to defend his case in court.
According to Orson Welles, the idea for The Lady from Shanghai (1948) came purely by accident: "I was working on Around the World in 80 Days [a stage musical of the Jules Verne novel, produced by Michael Todd] and we found ourselves in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to get the costumes from the station because $50,000 was due and our producer, Mr. Todd, had gone broke. Without that money we couldn't open. I called Harry Cohn [head of Columbia Studios] in Hollywood and I said, 'I have a great story for you if you could send me $50,000 by telegram in one hour. I'll sign a contract to make it.' 'What story?' Cohn said. I was calling from a pay phone, and next to it was a display of paperbacks and I gave him the title of one of them, Lady from Shanghai. I said, 'Buy the novel and I'll make the film.' An hour later, we got the money."
The novel from which the film was adapted was in fact entitled If I Die Before I Wake; in addition to that title, other working titles for the film included Black Irish and Take This Woman. William Castle, who later found fame as the producer/director of gimmicky horror films such as House on Haunted Hill (1958), The Tingler (1959) and Thirteen Ghosts (1960), already owned the rights to the book. He consequently acted as an associate producer and may have contributed to the script.
According to Welles, he originally intended to cast the actress Barbara Laage, an unknown, in the role of Elsa Bannister. However, Cohn suggested Rita Hayworth instead. Hayworth's legendary long red hair was cut short and dyed blonde for the film, much to the discomfort of Harry Cohn and the executives at Columbia Studies, who were banking on the appeal of Hayworth's star image, which had been carefully built up in films such as Gilda (1946). The film was shot on location in New York, San Francisco and Acapulco; the yacht used in the film belonged to Errol Flynn. Welles, who was officially separated from Hayworth at the time, moved back in with her during the production. However, their reconciliation was only temporary; the two divorced before the film was finally released, after a year's delay, in May of 1948. In retrospect, the film has often been interpreted as a commentary on their doomed marriage.
For many years The Lady from Shanghai has had the reputation of being one of Welles' great failures. Welles spoke at length about the troubled production in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich included in the book This is Orson Welles (revised ed. 1998), essential reading for anyone interested in Welles and his work. "Friends avoided me," Welles said. "Whenever it was mentioned, people would clear their throats and change the subject very quickly out of consideration for my feelings. I only found out that it was considered a good picture when I got to Europe. The first nice thing I ever heard about it from an American was from Truman Capote. One night in Sicily, he quoted whole pages of dialogue word for word." Among the problems associated with the film were supposed production delays on Welles' part, the sort of thing for which he had already gained notoriety in Hollywood. In fact, as Peter Bogdanovich has pointed out, most of the delays were due to Rita Hayworth's illness. In addition, the assistant cameraman Donald Ray Cory died of heart failure during the Acapulco shoot. The chief cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. also fell ill; the great Rudolph Mate shot part of the film for him, though his credits don't appear onscreen.
Welles' rough cut of the film ran approximately 155 minutes. When it tested poorly with preview audiences, the editor Viola Lawrence, at the request of the studio, cut out over an hour of footage, bringing the film to its current length of 87 minutes. The Chinese opera sequence and the funhouse sequence were originally much more elaborate set-pieces; Welles was particularly proud of the latter and has insisted that it would have been, if anything, more memorable than the climactic shootout in the hall of mirrors. Only a few stills remain to suggest what the funhouse sequence in its entirety might have looked like. However, even more than the cuts Welles objected to the musical score, which consists largely of quotations from the song "Please Don't Kiss Me" which Rita Hayworth sings on the yacht. In his memo to Harry Cohn after seeing the re-cut film, Welles wrote: "The only idea which seems to have occurred to this present composer is the rather weary one of using a popular song -- the "theme¿ -- in as many arrangements as possible. Throughout we have musical references to "Please Don't Kiss Me" for almost every bridge and also for a great deal of the background material. The tune is pleasing, it may do very well on the Hit Parade -- but Lady from Shanghai is not a musical comedy [...]" However, even in its somewhat mutilated form The Lady from Shanghai remains a well-acted and stylish example of the film noir. Hayworth, Sloane and Anders in particular stand out and the movie is distinguished by its striking deep-focus and chiaroscuro cinematography and a number of offbeat touches that only a director like Welles could have dreamed up.
Director/Producer: Orson Welles
Associate Producers: Richard Wilson and William Castle
Screenplay: Orson Welles, based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King
Photography: Charles Lawton, Jr., Rudolph Mate (uncredited)
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson and Sturges Carne
Editor: Viola Lawrence
Music: Heinz Roemheld; music and lyrics for song "Please Don't Kiss Me" by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher
Cast: Orson Welles (Michael O'Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Erskine Sanford (Judge), Gus Schilling (Goldie), Carl Frank (District Attorney), Louis Merrill (Jake), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie).
by James Steffen