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The Lady from Shanghai

Directed by Orson Welles with Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders, 87 minutes, 1948, Blu-ray


"I've always found it very sanitary to be broke."

Everett Sloan in mirrors

Everett Sloane in mirrors

By Carter B. Horsley

Things get crazy and surreal in "The Lady from Shanghai," Orson Welles' 1947 masterpiece that was cut down from two hours to 87 minutes by the studio.

The 87-minute version, the only one that allegedly now exists, is exhausting and more than enough for anyone with doubts about Welles' genius.

It is confusing and unpredictable. 

Its lead characters are neither lovable nor noble, and a bit odd. 

It's a bumpy ride with an smashing, unforgettable ending and not a lot of survivors.

Some might describe it as the classic film noir.

The movie begins slowly with Michael O'Hara, played by Orson Welles, wandering in New York City.

In a narrative voice-over, he states that

"When I start out to make a fool of myself, there' very little that can stop me.  If I'd known that it would end, I'd never let anything start, if I'd been in my right mind.  But once I'd seen her, once I'd seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some, with plenty of time and nothing to do but get myself in trouble.  Some people can smell danger, not me."

Elsa Bannister, played by Rita Hayworth, is riding in a Hansom carriage in Central Park in New York City.  The red- and long-haired bombshell is striking because she is, here, a platinum blonde with short hair, which infuriated Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, because she was the number one pin-up girl for American soldiers in World War II and had starred the previous year, gloriously, in "Gilda."  She also had been married to Welles and had told Cohn she wanted to make the picture although they were then separated.

She catches the eye of O'Hara, who is on foot, and he is instantly smitten and strikes up a conversation while trying to keep pace with her carriage.  She is amused and offers him a job aboard her husband's yacht that is scheduled to start a long cruise the next day.

She continues her ride and O'Hara, an brutish Irish bloke, strolls on.

A few minutes later, however, he hears screams and sees in the bushes several youths chasing an hysterical Hayworth on foot.  Without hesitation, he dashes in and pummels the attackers away. 

Our hero!

He gets on the carriage, behind her in the driver's seat, and they start talking and before long he joins her in under the hood and takes her to her garage.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

Hayworth and Welles

Elsa tells Michael that she is a White Russian and was born in Chifu on the China coast where, according to Tim Dirks, the founder of, "she probably lived a compromised, naughty life as a high-class prostitute."  Michael remarks that Chifu is "the second wickedest city in the world" and she asks what is the first.  He answers "Macao, wouldn't you say so?"  She answers that she would, adding that she worked there and asking how he'd rate Shanghai: "I worked there too....You need more than luck in Shanghai."  Michael tells her that he once killed a man in Spain.  That's putting your cards on the table!

Welles has gained a bit of weight and is not as romantic as he once was.  Hayworth, on the other hand, has survived the radical hairdo make-over and her sharp jawline and fine posture help make her a radiant and striking beauty.

Next, we meet a very dapper man in a business suit and hat hobbling, with considerable difficulty, into a seamen's hall on a cane with braces on both of his legs.  He's looking for O'Hara and when he finds him, identifies himself as "Bannister," asks if he is an able-bodied seaman.  He is Hayworth's husband, Arthur Bannister, a well-known criminal lawyer played with great authority by Everett Sloane.

The yacht in the movie was the Zaca that was owned by Errol Flynn and is named Circe in the movie.  Flynn was a friend of Welles and does not appear in the movie although he was the skipper for the trip.

Glenn Anders and Orson Welles

Glenn Anders and Orson Welles

A well-dressed man, George Grisby, played with memorable and unsettling oddness by Glenn Anders, joins the trip and tells Michael he is Bannister's business partner and then asks him if he would kill him "if I gave you a chance."  Grisby grins alot and sweats and leers from afar at Elsa sunning herself on an island's rocks.

On her return to the yacht, Elsa asks Michael for a cigarette, telling him that she's "learning to smoke now," provoking Michael to remark, "Do all rich women play games like this" and then he slaps her.  "I didn't think you would do that," she blurts out and Michael replies "I didn't either," adding that "you're scared.  I'm scared too....I'm not what you think I am."

Grisby watches them embrace and as he heads away in his small boat he says "So long, kiddies!....Bye, bye."

Elsa then says that "Now he knows about us."

Michael replies:  "I wish I did," aptly summing up what most viewers were then thinking.

Bannister soon asks Michael if he is wealthy and is told "I'm independent," later adding, nobly, "I've always found it very sanitary to be broke."

When the yacht's party goes for a picnic in a Mexican swamp, Bannister tells his steward, Sidney Broome, swarthily played by Ted de Corsia, that "there's a plot against my life, correct?  I'm going to be murdered."  Elsa tells Michael that Broome is really a detective hired by Bannister to watch her so she can't divorce him.  Bannister tells Grisby that doesn't "mind a bit if Michael's in love with my wife," prompting Elsa to declare that she doesn't "have to listen to you talk like that."  "Yes, you do, lover," Bannister growls and Michael observes that they're like sharks in a feeding frenzy.  Yes.  Yes.

Grisby admits to a fear that the world was heading for nuclear bomb destruction: "It's just got to come!"  He then proposes "a straight-forward business proposition"; he will pay Michael $5,000 to kill him.  He then departs abruptly, saying "So long, fella!"

Elsa tells Michael that Grisby is insane, adding "neither is Arthur."

Grisby argues that when he vanishes, Michael can't be tried for murder if there is no body.  Grisby, however, shoots Broome, who tells Elsa as he is dying that her husband is going to be murdered and it won't be "fake, not this time."  Broome also tells Michael that Grisby really didn't plan to disappear and just wanted an alibi so he can kill Bannister.

Michael hurriedly goes into San Francisco to Bannister's law office to prevent his murder.  Bannister is alive, but Grisby is dead.  Grisby had Michael's hat in his hand and Michael is arrested for his murder and Bannister offers to defend him.

Bannister tells his wife that George did not want to disappear about partnership insurance.  If was dead, how could he collect the insurance?

Michael tells Elsa that Grisby wanted to kill Bannister because he couldn't get a divorce, but Elsa interrupts him to say "George didn't have a wife," adding "he wasn't married."

At Michael's unruly trial, the District Attorney asks Bannister to take the stand and he agrees on the condition that he can cross-examine himself.

Just before the jury gives a verdict, Bannister tells Michael, as he is about to take some of his pills, that this was a case he will enjoy losing and that he will visit Michael in the Death House.

Michael suddenly grabs Bannister's pills and tries to take a many as possible and is taken into the judge's chambers where he hits a guard and escapes and runs to Chinatown where he goes into a Chinese opera theater.

Elsa, who speaks Chinese, of course, has called her Chinese servants to meet her and comes into the theater following Michael and spots him in the audience where he is about to pass out. 

End of story?

No way.

They embrace but he finds the gun that killed Grisby in her purse and declares "You're the killer."

She and her servants manage to take Michael to a deserted amusement park.

Crazy House

Orson enters crazy house

In one scene that is very Expressionistic and almost looks like it was taken from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" Michael is trying desperately to come to his senses.

In his lengthy and fine review of the movie at, Tim Dirks notes that the film "is an imaginative, complicated, unsettling film noir who-dun-it thriller, with fascinating visuals and tilting compositions, luminous and brilliant camerawork (by Charles Lawton, Jr.) and numerous subplots and confounding plot twists."

In his review, Dirks maintains that "the murderer and mastermind of the whole affair turns out to be the villainess Elsa" who "had planned to kill her husband (with co-conspirator Grisby) for a share of the money, then kill Grisby and frame Michael for the crimes...But when Grisby killed Broome, she knew that the plan would fail so she killed Grisby herself - off-screen - (or warned Bannister to kill Grisby?)."

Sounds simple?


And after a couple of viewings, this unraveling explanation seems a bit far-fetched given all the plot twists and Elsa's beauty.

Elsa catches up with O'Hara and tells him that Grisby was mad and "had to be shot."

Michael asks what about him?

"We could have gone off together," adding that she loves him.

"One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.  But haven't you heard ever of something better to follow?" Michael muses.

Elsa says "No."

Bannister makes multiple entrances in the spectacular and dizzying hall of mirrors in one of the greatest scenes in cinema history where Elsa and Michael are talking.

He threatens her with a letter he has written to the District Attorney about her:  "So you'd be foolish to fire that gun.  With these mirrors, it's difficult to tell.  You are aiming at me, aren't you.  I'm aiming at you, lover.  Of course, killing you is killing myself.  It's the same thing.  But you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us."

Elsa begs Michael not to leave her: "I don't want to die." But he does....

In his lengthy lead essay for the Blu-ray edition of the film, entitled "A Bright, Guilty World: Magic and Madness in The Lady from Shanghai," Samm Deighan writes that "Orson Welles wrote that he wanted The Lady from Shanghai to be 'off-centre, queer, strange,' despite the fact that Hollywood was still looking for him to prove his reliability after the excesses and critical failure of Citizen Kane (1941)."

"In this sense, The Lady from Shanghai can be seen as a companion piece to Welles' The Stranger (1946): both are film noir efforts the director made under the purview of controlling producers.  Both concern themes of guilt, paranoia, and persecution, follow protagonists that have difficulty differentiating between appearance and reality, and involve antagonists running from - and attempting to obscure or rewrite - questionable past lives."

The character of Elsa "sits sphinx-like at the heart of the film's many mysteries and inconsistencies.  While film noir is replete with schizophrenic reflection and mirror images, the many depictions of Elsa are the key to The Lady from Shanghai's themes of fractured identities, frustrated desire, and visual derangement.  Voyeuristic glimpses of Hayworth through a spyglass early in the film hint at the festishistic portrayal of Elsa and she remains an object of desire always just out of reach, the physical personification of a shimmering oasis....The film's downbeat ending - in which Michael unexpectedly survives and leaves Elsa to die alone, surrounded by broken glass and shattered mirrors - is among the most nihilistic in all of film noir.  His illusions are similarly shattered as he discovers Elsa's treachery, and thus her true nature, though there is no resolution and order is never restored."

Rita Hayworth and shattered mirror

Rita Hayworth and shattered mirror

The film was originally titled "Take This Woman" and then "Black Irish," and was based on Sherwood King's 1938 novel, "If I Die Before I Wake."

Orson Welles wrote the screenplay and was also the film's director, producer and lead actor.

According to a review of the film by Jeffrey Kaufman at, Welles wanted to do the film "only to raise funds to help pay debts associated with his stage production, a gargantuan musical version of Around the World in 80 Days" that "the show's producer, one Mike Todd, would go on to produce an all-star, big budget film adaptation a decade or so later."

Mr. Kaufman notes that the "hallucinatory" trip though a carnival fun house "was hacked to smithereens by Cohn, but the few minutes that are left are still among the most striking moments in the annals of film, let alone noir."

This movie is rated 82nd on Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films list.

Click here to order a blu-ray edition of this movie from for $27.99.

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