Review of Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Lady from Shanghai starts very slowly but gradually builds to a dizzying climax. Writer/director Orson Welles plays the not-too-bright lead, Michael O'Hara, with a not-too-convincing Irish accent, but it's more fun to watch Welles' then-estranged wife Rita Hayworth exploit Mike's blinding obsession with her character Elsa, the young and beautiful wife trapped in a loveless marriage with shady senior citizen lawyer, Arthur Bannister. Too besotted to think straight and in need of cash to run away with Elsa, Mike helps Bannister's law partner Grisby fake his death by pretending to accidentally shoot Grisby. Things go wrong when Grisby turns up dead for real and Mike is tried for the murder, but they worsen when Elsa's jealous husband volunteers to "defend" Mike.

Sounds good, doesn't it? How can a noir containing classic elements of lust and betrayal and murder ever be slow? Lady slows, partly because of the film's off-putting, disruptive style. Hayworth's portrayal of Elsa is eerily lifeless. Close-ups of Grisby are tighter than of any of the other characters, so his face appears disconcertingly large. The lighting in the same scene changes visibly, making it look like the different parts of the scene were filmed in entirely different locations. While the disruptive style is artistically intriguing, it doesn't quite gel with the style of noir.

The film also slows because instead of developing the promising beginning where Mike is entranced by Elsa, director Welles diverts the film south by having the characters cruise to the Caribbean. There's potential here to create a contrast between the beautiful physical world of the Caribbean and the dark world interiorised in the noir figures, but Welles fails to do so. He hints that Bannister blackmailed Elsa into marrying him (over what?) and the Bannister maid is trying to protect Elsa (from what?), but these hints aren't developed. They fade away exactly like night before the sun.

Welles also likens the flawed characters to forces of nature by having Mike compare them to sharks and by visually crosscutting between the characters and wild animals. But this grand allusion doesn't take. In the noir world, tragedy doesn't occur because the gods or forces of nature decree it. It happens as a result of wholly human flaws. It's anthropomorphising to posit that forces of nature scheme or feel lust or greed. Likewise it's a mistake to imbue the denatured human figures of noir with natural desires.

Fortunately the film returns to the noir form after its leisurely first third. Mike falls into the trap that had been set up for him from the beginning of the film, the trap he was fated to fall into after he casually revealed he killed a man once. He's accused of killing Grisby. No one believes Mike didn't do it--except the viewer. Identified with the not-too-bright Mike, we follow him to the end, which culminates in a shoot-out in a hall of mirrors. This is a brilliant move, because the hall of mirrors visually splits apart and duplicates the characters. The linguistic form of "two-faced" materializes visually, representing the two (or more) natures of the characters.

Mike too is duplicated in the process, complicating the viewer's identification with him. On one hand, since we see what he sees we believe him. We might think that the answers he gets are the complete answers since the narrative and the use of voice over makes us identify with him. On the other hand, from the very beginning we learn he's not a bright man. He's too obsessed with Elsa to be smart. If Mike is duplicated visually, he may be duping us as well by making us think we have all the answers.

So here is the real reward of carefully sticking with Lady from Shanghai: we as viewers have a responsibility to come up with the real answers ourselves. The duplicitousness of the film itself and the disruptive narrative shake us up, make us active in relation to the film rather than passively consuming it without ever really understanding. It's difficult to figure out the real answers of the film, but in doing so, our understanding of film is elevated to another level.

(January 17, 2000)

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