Woman-Centric Classic Movie Review: The Lady from Shanghai

Happy Friday, Persephoneers! I hope you had a good week, regardless of whether or not it meant a vacation or just a normal old week for you. But regardless, here is this week’s classic movie pick to start your weekend off just right. We have some mystery, intrigue, and forbidden love in the 1947 film “The Lady from Shanghai,” which starts Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, and Everett Sloane. Welles wrote and directed the film, and at the time, he and Hayworth were estranged and on the verge of divorce.

A still from the film.

The film starts out in New York City, where Irish-born Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) meets the exquisite Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) while walking in Central Park. After Michael rescues Elsa from a band of thugs and sees her safely home, he discovers that she is the wife of disabled attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Bannister, upon finding out that O’Hara was a seaman, hires him to work aboard their yacht as they travel through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. O’Hara, who’s attracted to Elsa, takes the job even though he knows he shouldn’t.

As they sail to San Francisco, O’Hara notices that Elsa seems frightened of something, and several times, when he is ready to leave, she persuades him to stay. They eventually give in to their attraction to each other, but soon their cover is almost blown by Bannister’s partner, George Grisby, who joins them on the trip. He has seen Michael’s and Ilsa’s supposedly surreptitious interactions, and he approaches Michael with a proposition: for five thousand dollars, Grisby asks Michael to assist him in faking his death. Michael would confess to killing Grisby, and he wouldn’t be prosecuted if no body could be found. Grisby would then be able to cash in on the insurance money, take a new name, and pay Michael off. With the money, Michael realizes that he and Elsa could run off together, and he agrees to the plan. Little does he know that it’s a ruse to cover up an even deeper plot. He must navigate his way through the deception and the law, hoping that he will comes out of it all in one piece, hopefully to begin a life with Elsa.

A still from the film.

The film itself was a complete box-office bomb, and as with many of other Welles’s films, the studio edited it a lot. People were even shocked that Hayworth bleached her hair blonde and cut it for the part. But perhaps the most interesting parallel of all is the building of the attraction between Michael and Elsa, the realization of it, the honeymoon period, and then the slow disillusionment that culminates in the events of the ending scene. While the film is based on a book, you can see how Welles may have used some of the events in his own life to add to the story and how the whole creative process of making the movie may have been cathartic for him. It seems as though the film was a sort of mourning period for both Welles and Hayworth, as they finalized their divorce soon after its release.

While there are many things that are good about this film, one of the most noticeable is how Welles builds suspense throughout. He’s a master of pacing and of making each scene add to the story. The lighting, the setting, the actors’ movements and tones, and the costumes all tie in to what is going on in the film at that moment and how it will add to the denouement. The story unfolds around you like you’re a frog in a pot of water slowly heating to boiling; we pick up the sense of menace as the characters sail through to San Francisco, as plots and counterplots weave together while all of the men involved swelter and suffer in the growing heat as Elsa, the one around whom their plans and desires revolve, remains cool and pristine despite the torpor.

One of the film’s most famous scenes, hailed for how it’s shot and executed.

Just keep one thing in mind before you watch: you might want to turn on the A/C full blast. Because yes, it’s that hot.

Leave a Reply