Orson Welles was weighty. I think that’s universally agreed. Influence-wise, in terms of mythologising and the shadow cast over subsequent Hollywood studio artistry, for sure. Corporeally also, later in life. But additionally in content; often lean in running time, Welles pictures nevertheless feel monolithic. Sometimes for the technical bravura exhibited, sometimes for scope, sometimes just for the presence of the latter-day filmmaker and (he says, reservedly) auteur himself. The Lady From Shanghai however is surprisingly sprightly.
Known principally for the iconic, pure cinematic magic of the funhouse sequence (pure cinema in that such an arrangement could not be translated into and sustained in another medium), there is much to admire beyond it, not least the nimble way it carries along intricate machinations with bite-size philosophical ruminations and a macabre wit. And even some broad slapstick. Whether this was due to Welles’ or the studio’s hand is difficult to discern from the film alone, but the almost-vignette nature works in the film’s favour, preventing it from getting bogged down in its murky complexities. The rapidly fading-to-black scene fragments hardboil the elements down to rawest pulp.
At its simplest, Shanghai is noir of the sparest flavour. The narration from our protagonist (Welles with a mildly distracting Irish accent) puts us straight into the archetypal meeting with the femme who will fatale-y provide his undoing. Even for skeletal film noir, the exhibited focus on getting through the character and narrative beats as soon as possible is alarmingly brisk.
The aforementioned femme is Rita Hayworth, and despite being married, she strikes up a flirtatious rapport with Welles quickly after he all-too-easily defends her from three assailants. Roped against his will and better nature into working on Hayworth and her ace defence lawyer husband’s yacht, he becomes embroiled in a plot involving cold dead corpses, er… warm alive corpses, and cold hard cash.
While some ‘classic’ Hollywood films can prove somewhat burdensome to modern viewers, the genre-hopping both prevents this and provides a unexpectedly contemporary take on the crime film, leaping from seafaring mystery to courtroom drama to exhilarating thriller with an ease which belies the film’s troubled production. Much of this can of course be credited to the oft-deified Welles, but a lot of the responsibility can be placed on the actors, who tread the line between character and caricature, their monstrously vicious interactions voyeuristically observed equally by Welles and us.
Ultimately though, it is for the aforementioned funhouse climax that Shanghai is best remembered, and deservedly so. As the pursued Welles stumbles through an exaggerated funhouse, this distorted physical manifestation of his mental state called to mind the spirit of Hitchcock’s Spellbound and its Dali dream sequence from a couple of years prior. Considering the discord present in this ten minutes, culminating in a fantastic mirror maze shootout (Welles evidently had a thing about reflecting his visage into infinity), it certainly would be something to see the director’s planned two and a half hour version, which was allegedly intended to unnerve and disrupt comfortable viewing at every turn and with every facet of filmmaking (his intentional audio alterations were all but ‘fixed’ in post by the studio).
It says a lot for the film though that, despite the indelible fingerprints of the studio so detectable throughout The Lady from Shanghai, it nonetheless stands up on its own as a minor masterpiece, one clearly as influential on contemporary cinema as Orson Welles’ more discussed works, and deserving of a significant place in Broadway’s selective retrospective (finishing this Sunday with the little-seen Too Much Johnson).