The Lady from Shanghai
Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth
The Lady from Shanghai flickered onscreen. Orson Welles began to speak. In a flash I was transported back to 1970. A piccalo played while a commercial sang the virtues of a mighty manly soap. But no, Welles was not lathering up on screen for an Irish Spring commercial. He was Michael O’Hara, sometime sailor, wannabe writer and feckless love junkie musing on the visitudes of bad love. In other words, a complete idiot.
The Lady from Shanghai twists and turns on Michael O’Hara’s various personas. He hangs out on sailboats but doesn’t do any work. He spouts jaded homilies and pecks on a typewriter — but no agent. But with just one look he falls whole hog in love.
Here we’ll cut Welles/O’Hara some slack. After all, few men can resist the charms of Rita Hayworth. In 1946 Gilda premiered and Red-Haired Rita took American by storm. She was Marilyn famous before Marilyn. The number one star in the world. Harry Cohn, head of the Columbia Pictures, was determined to capitalize on her fame. So Cohn pressured Welles to cast his estranged wife as another femme fatale in The Lady from Shanghai.
Most know the plot of The Lady from Shanghai– well scratch that — actually most don’t know the plot. Harry Cohn famously offered to pay a thousand dollars to anyone in the screening room who could explain what was happening. Apparently there were no takers.
The eccentric noir bombed at the box office. Who was to blame? Was it Cohn’s fabled film butchery? (He cut 50% of the rough cut and inserted musical numbers). The original novel’s* equally bewildering plotline — or was it just Welles being too Welles?
Cohn blamed the blonde haircut. When Welles acquiesced to hire Rita he also convinced Rita chop off all her hair and dye it platinum blond. A media outrage ensued. (She’s lucky her hair didn’t fall out; her natural hair color was almost black!)
But did her hair killed the picture? Even now it seems crazy. I think Welles was more likely to blame.
I adore Orson Welles. Eccentric, bitchy and grandious he knew how to spin a tale on-screen and off. Unfortunately when he had to be someone other than Welles (i.e., an actor) failure beckoned.
The Lady from Shanghai is a supreme example. Cohn hired Welles to be the director. Welles should have coughed up the money to hire an actor for the lead instead of playing director, lead and scriptwriter. But no. Donning a Yahting cap and an open white shirt, Welles became O’Hara the Irish sailor man in costume only. That’s because Welles sounds like Welles no matter what the accent. He just can’t seem to rid himself of dramatic pauses and pendantic monologues.
In the end Welles just comes off as too smart to be a patsy. Lazy? sure. Mope after Rita Hayworth — absolutely. Sign a murder confession for a clearly deranged lawyer so the attorney can fake his death and go live in on an island? Nah. Don’t buy it. Welles just can’t sell stupid. Other actors can. Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity — bingo. William Hurt in Body Heat — sure thing. John Dahl in Gun Crazy — pussy whipped poster boy.
Despite Welles’ acting, plot contortions and oddly inserted (and dubbed) musical numbers, The Lady From Shanghai has vision. Rita once again nails a shimmering, magnetic femme fatale. The supporting lawyers and sailors are equally off-beat, off-kilter, and off-putting. They inhabit a black and white world where evil co-exists with farce, hope and beauty. And Welles leaves us wondering 70 years later, what if?
Italian Film Poster by Ballester.
*If I Wake Before I Die.
**O’Hara’s shark speech is pure Welles