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The Lady from Shanghai

October 15, 2010

209. The Lady from Shanghai
Directed by Orson Welles
USA, 1948
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
First viewing


Seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) meets the beautiful and enigmatic Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and she offers him a job on her husband’s yacht, which is due to set sail to San Francisco. During the journey O’Hara meets Elsa’s sinister husband, criminal defence attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and his strange law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders).

O’Hara quickly finds himself involved in a complicated murder plot, and his common sense is overshadowed by his feelings for Elsa.

Essential Scene:

On a stopover on the way to San Francisco, Elsa, Arthur, George and Michael sit on the beach on a hot, sticky night. The conversation turns to the hypothetical subject of calling each other names, attacking each other with knowledge of the other’s sins. While Arthur and George laugh at the idea, Elsa seems cold and distant. The drunken Arthur encourages Michael to join in.

Michael: You know, once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse… until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.

The mood has darkened, and everyone has gone quiet.


After watching this I couldn’t help but wish the whole film was like the beginning and the end. The beginning caught me. It’s unusual, it’s intriguing. The last half hour is stunning filmmaking, Orson Welles’ brand of brilliance.

But the middle was distracting. The scenes were short and sharp and the complicated plot hurried along. The sad thing is, if Welles had complete control of The Lady from Shanghai, the whole film may have been what I hoped it would be. A whole hour was edited out when the film was taken out of Welles’ hands. Studio bastards strike again.

As it stands, The Lady from Shanghai is still a cracking example of film noir. The claustrophobic feel of the camera angles and extreme close ups pre-empt the dizzying finale and give one a taste of Welles’ true vision.

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