The Lady from Shanghai: Welles is Speaking Sense

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Production still from The Lady from Shanghai 1947 / Director: Orson Welles / Image courtesy: Park Circus

Orson Welles: A Retrospective‘ showcases one of the most influential and charismatic figures in North American cinema. An acclaimed filmmaker, actor, theatre director, screenwriter, and producer, Orson Welles worked extensively in radio, theatre, film and television. The program presents all 12 features as well as his documentary F for Fake 1973, and a selection of Welles’ film and television appearances and radio broadcasts. Currently screening at GOMA until 28 May 2014. Tickets are available online (booking fees apply) or at the GOMA Box Office from one hour prior to film screenings. Become a Gallery Member to receive a free 5-film pass.

Directed, written, co-produced and starred in for Columbia Pictures as a way to finance his stage musical Around the World in Eighty Days 1946 ― Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai 1948 is an innovative example of the film noir genre.  Based on the Sherwood King novel If I Die Before I Wake (1938), it follows seamen Michael O’Hara (Welles) and his part in an elaborate murder plot unfolding on the yacht of his wealthy defence attorney employer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Bannister’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and his ‘partner in crime’ George Grisby (Glenn Anders) are among an intimate cast aboard the yacht who get caught up in a tense drama that culminates in a plan for murder. The relationship between O’Hara and Elsa Bannister mirrors the story’s mystery and machinations and the onscreen friction between both actors mirrored the turmoil in Welles’ and Hayworth’s off-screen relationship, with their 4-year marriage teetering on the brink of divorce throughout the production.

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1947: Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, his wife at the time, costarred in Columbia Pictures' The Lady from Shanghai. Welles was also the writer and director of the film.
Publicity stills of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

With each of his directorial projects Welles sought to push the boundaries of his filmmaking and experiment with different cinematographic techniques. With The Lady from Shanghai he originally wanted to shoot entirely on location and include no close-ups of his actors – an approach his studio found outrageous given that Hollywood star Rita Hayworth had been bankrolled as the film’s poster girl. The film’s surrealist funhouse sequence and scenes in a hall of mirrors and aquarium all utilise techniques of montage, projection, silhouette and reverse footage to create iconic visual moments. The set of the funhouse itself was inventively intended to act as a kind of stage which visually manifested the intensity of the film’s climax.

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Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in a gruesome section of the funhouse not included in the final release.

Like many of his films, Welles’ approach to narrative was heavily informed by his work in radio. Welles began broadcasting radio plays as Mercury Theatre on the Air for six months in 1938, including an infamous rendition of The War of the Worlds which, sensationalised by the newspapers, rocketed Welles and his company into the national and international stoplight. In The Lady from Shanghai, Welles uses spoken narration to hold together the intricacies of plot and stitch together what the studio editors left behind. At least an hour of Welles’ original footage was not included in the final release and many scenes were swapped for studio-ordered re-shoots. This is particularly evident towards the end of the film where the viewer is transported from a theatre to a funhouse, the location of the film’s famous Hall of Mirrors sequence. O’Hara’s voiceover fills in the gaps of the dialogue, elaborating on his suspicions and sense of personal betrayal that lies at the centre of the film’s twisting murder plot. Adding a strange depth to the story, these radio-like revelations reinforce the idea that viewers are encouraged to deduce clues of the plot not from the onscreen visuals, but from point of view descriptions of the internal drama and characters as narrated to us by O’Hara.

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1947: Rita Hayworth (1918 - 1987) stars as the glamorous Mrs Bannister in 'The Lady From Shanghai', a film noir directed by Orson Welles. (Photo by Robert Coburn Sr.)
Publicity stills of Rita Hayworth

After handing over the footage to editors at Columbia Pictures, Welles’ input with the film virtually ceased. The story of how The Lady from Shanghai was finished is one consistent with a career of self-financing, often derided as Welles simply ‘selling-out’, which explains his limited involvement in the final product. Unpopular in Hollywood Welles was often reported as a director who went overschedule and over budget. But with The Lady from Shanghai, he delivered the film both on time and on schedule, and it was the studio who finding it unacceptable, demanded re-shoots and heavy editing, and dragged it over budget and deadline. Welles’ reputation was to only solidify in the mind of Hollywood, leading to less and less financiers for his future projects and an end to his working with large American studios.

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Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) trapped in the hall of mirrors

The Lady from Shanghai may have been a financing ploy for Welles, but the dedication of the director to experiment, and the cast and crew to realise this innovation, cannot be diminished by the conditions of its inception. It remains an innovative example of the film noir genre in its twisting plot and unique visuals, and served its capital-raising role for Welles in facilitating one of his other projects.