I had a car accident only hours before watching The Lady from Shanghai (1947). There I was, on the way home from the Yarraville video shop, when I was rammed up the back (I know …) while stopped at red lights.
(I also rented Brian De Palma’s Body Double on that trip to my beloved VHS outlet, but that’s another Video Shop Daze post …)
A similar (if undoubtedly more profound) tumultuousness was unfolding in the marriage of this film’s leads, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. Some critics have read this movie as a kind of parable of that marital breakdown, which was finalised shortly after the director (Welles, no less) cried: “It’s a wrap.”
How else to explain why Welles stripped Hayworth of her famous long red tresses, and (spoiler alert!) killed her off in the climax?
But okay, let’s put car accidents and failed romances aside. Let’s revisit this VHS classic for what it really is: one of the most deliciously dreamlike noirs released during that genre’s peak era.
The film opens with Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish sailor, saving Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from attackers in a moonlit Central Park. O’Hara takes a shining to the mysterious and wealthy siren, and agrees to be a crew member on her slow boat to Shanghai. This is despite the fact that Elsa is married to a lawyer, Arthur (Everett Sloan), and thus can’t (presumably) getting nookie with another.
Also, and more ominously, Michael makes his life-changing call despite Elsa’s warning that “anything can happen in Shanghai.”
The film’s orientalism is deeply unsettling. The cheesecake shots of a bikini-clad Hayworth are Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ thesis in a nutshell.
And yet, despite these hugely problematic aspects, M.C. Jay (The Love Doctor) finds himself fixated on The Lady from Shanghai. The film’s key strength is its artifice. Everything’s so outrageously fake! Hayworth’s bleached locks. Welles’ Irish brogue. The overacting of just about every cast member.
Add to this the surrealistic imagery, which includes the climactic Fun House and the hall of mirrors, and which (as shot in brooding black and white) harks back to the glory days of German Expressionism. By the time the last bullet is fired in the famously glass-filled finale, you suspect that you’ve slipped down the rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser …
And then, in the film’s fading moments, Hayworth-as-Elsa cries (spoiler alert!): “I don’t wanna die … I DON’T WANNA DIE!” I suspect our bawdy bad girl got her wish. The Lady from Shanghai has lingered in the memory of this film aficionado for years after that fender bender. I agree with the critic who called this pic “the weirdest great movie ever made.”