The Lady from Shanghai (1948) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film


The story goes that Orson Welles, needing $50,000, rang the head of Columbia Studios and offered to make a film for them from a paperback he had just plucked at random from a book stand near the phone booth. Is this tall tale true? And is the film any good? And are you ready for Rita Hayworth as a blonde? For answers to some of the questions follow me into the intoxicating fun house that is, The Lady from Shanghai.

I offer this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for all reviews, click here).

“When I start out to make a fool of myself there’s very little can stop me.”

Welles told the story of how he ‘happened’ to make this adaptation several times, but it is only true in part. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia, did lend him the money but the novel in question, Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake (which I reviewed here last week), had in fact been in discussion as a possible Welles project for some time as it seemed like a very likely vehicle for his then wife, Rita Hayworth, who was Columbia’s biggest star. The film that emerged didn’t please the bosses much, perceived as too tough to follow, too odd for mainstream audiences, not to mention the jarring removal of Hayworth’s signature long red locks for a blonde bob. And yet, at heart, it looked completely plausible on paper – in fact, if truth be told, it tells the same story as Hayworth’s biggest hit to that time, Gilda, from its exotic ‘south of the border’ setting (Rio replaced by Acapulco) to the main plot in which a femme fatale (Hayworth) is married to an older and shady character (Everett Sloane) who then falls for a man her own age (Welles), leading to a complex murder plot in which all is not what it seems.


The finished film follows the outline of King’s novel pretty faithfully, though all its major set-pieces, apart from the courtroom trial, are purely Welles’ creation. A young sailor ends up in the employ of crippled lawyer Arthur Bannister and falls in love with the man’s wife, Elsa. The lawyer’s partner, Grisby (a truly eccentric, ever-grinning performance by Glenn Anders), gets the sailor involved in a screwy scheme to fake his own death but ends up dead for real and the young man goes on trial for his life.

“Give my love to the sunrise”

The performances are very good, with Sloane having a great time as the tormented lawyer forever calling out “Loverrr …” to the unhappy Hayworth, who is ravishing of course and perhaps rather too solemn as the shady dame, though she does get to sing the OK novelty song, “Please Don’t Kiss Me”. Even Welles, in a soft and not that convincing Irish brogue, makes for a decent fall guy throughout. It is a shame that the editing is a bit choppy due to massive studio interference – but


much remains that is highly impressive none the less. The best bits are truly memorable: these include the extended sequences in Mexico (unusually shot on location, partly on Errol Flynn’s yacht); an eerie assignation in an aquarium; and the San Francisco Chinatown sequence, leading to the celebrated hall of mirrors finale in which the main characters shoot it out in an exceptional piece of imagery and choreography later ripped off in films as different as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon; Alec Baldwin’s The Shadow (which of course Welles used to voice when the character first appeared on radio in the 1930s); and Woody Allen’s marvellous whodunit pastiche, Manhattan Murder Mystery.

“Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us”

The plot does get very convoluted at times but does sort of make sense actually, though one has to remember that Cohn did re-edit the film after Welles delivered an early cut, doing pretty much what he did with Gilda, adding lots of small bits and closeups and excising sections to fasten the pace. These post-production efforts unfortunately make it actually less easy to follow (the truncated opening. section in New York has a very weird pace to it now) and sadly the huge chunks removed from the fun house climax are noticeable – but this is still a very entertaining mystery, with a highly satirical courtroom sequence that expands on an already strong part of the original novel and a fine gallery of character roles. When I recently had the opportunity to watch a new restoration of the film with a packed audience at the London Film Festival it got a standing ovation and was a highlight of the event. A rich and strange film, by turns bizarre, grotesque and expressionistic but also a very witty mystery with great location shooting in Acapulco and San Francisco and some fabulous set-pieces – do yourself a favour and rent this move, it’s a great ride.

DVD Availability: The film is easily available on DVD and now on a Bluray in the restored edition – the older audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich is well worth a listen

Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr (and Rudolph Maté)
Art Direction: Sturges Carne, Stephen Goosson, Orson Welles
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Gus Schilling, Erskine Sanford, Jessie Arnold

***** (4 fedora tips)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Film Noir, New York, Orson Welles, San Francisco, Sherwood King and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to The Lady from Shanghai (1948) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Kelly says:

    I’ve never heard that anecdote before, but I love (and often repeat) Hollywood anecdotes, so, like Fox Mulder, “I want to believe.” Great review, and though I’ve not seen this one, words like “bizarre” and “grotesque” push the right buttons for me.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – What a great story! In a wa it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not really; it’s a terrific story. And it really is I think an excellent film. Hayworth I think does a fine job even without her red hair ;-), and the film does rather carry one along. Well at least it did me. I like your term ‘fun house,’ because it captures the atmosphere.

  3. Colin says:

    A shame so much of the film was cut by the studio, isn’t it? I still love what remains though. The set pieces are wildly entertaining and the plot does more or less make sense – although like a lot of film noir it probably takes more than one viewing to get everything straight in your head.

    I’ve heard quite a few people complain to a greater or lesser extent about Welles’ affected Irish accent in this one, but it’s never bothered me in the slightest. In fact, I quite like it, and I’m Irish! I agree though that Hayworth does come across as a little too distant and remote.

    • Glad to hear the ‘Oirish’ accent is passable as I really donlt feel I can pass judgement on it! I think you’re right, it does take a few viewing for it to really sink in, but then that’s Welles for you. With the exception of The Stranger, which is very entertaining and highly professional, I find this to be true of all the films he directed anyway.

      • Colin says:

        I think you just have to accept that Welles’ films require a bit of effort on the part of the viewer. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

        • Every time I see one of his feels I just get more in awe of the man’s talent – a true genius. I no longer have the ability to endlessly re-watch favourite films as I did in my teens and early 20s but for Welles and a few other I always make an exception. The Spanish Blu-ray of Macbeth by the way is taken from the Olive master and looks great. The Italian Blu of Confidential Report is pretty decent too but both are sadly extras free. The region 1 DVD of Shanghai is surprisingly strong actually and holds up very nicely and has decent extras too (if you like Peter Bogdanovich, which I do).

          • Colin says:

            Thanks for the info on those BDs. I agree the old DVD of Shanghai is fine – I enjoy listening to Bogdanovich too. I find him informed and interesting.

          • Some reviews clearly hate him (not least for his cravats …) but his enthusiasm seems undimmed even after all this time – the one thing I try very hard to to hang on to my enthusiasm but it feel like a losing battle at time.

          • Colin says:

            I reckon you’ve still got it pal. For myself, the enthusiasm is no problem – finding time to share it is another matter entirely!

          • Thanks chum – I doubt I’ll get to a sixth anniversary though and I think January is going to be pretty quiet here at Fedora! As you say, it’s all about time …

          • Colin says:

            Never say die! Time may be a problem but at least we haven’t reached this point yet –

          • Cheers mate – the Marvin Killers is due on Blu-ray early next year though it will have a hard time beating the Criterion double DVD which I still cherish.

          • Colin says:

            Quite. That Criterion double edition is a corker and I’d hate to be without it.

          • Ever notice hoe they use some of the Mancini score from Touch of Evil in the Siegel film? Weird but it sort of works …

          • Colin says:

            I actually only picked up on that recently even though it’s pretty obvious once you notice it. I reckon it works very well.
            It’s kind of nice too the way these random ramblings manage to work their way back to Welles. 🙂

          • The way it should be Colin, the way it should be …

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    One of my favorites. How can you not like a film that looks this good and is so edgy.

  5. macavityabc says:

    Saw this on TV many years ago. It was a lot of fun.

  6. Bobbi says:

    The Lady from Shanghai is not the only Orson Welles movie that studio heads butchered just look at what they did to Touch of Evil. Welles was one of the greatest movie directors that lived and some knee jerk studio heads come along who think they know more than the director and slaughter the film. I saw The Lady from Shanghai many, many years ago it was a classic back then and is still a classic today.
    At least some people were able to restore to a point Touch of Evil, maybe some day they will do that to The Lady from Shanghai.

  7. I’ve seen LADY FROM SHANGHAI in the discount bin at WAL-MART. Next time, I’ll pick it up! Nice review!

  8. John says:

    Love this one! Wanted to see ever since the Woody Allen parody. I’ve seen it about five times now and reading your review I’m may be up for my sixth viewing. Recently saw another hall of mirrors rip off in Nightmare (1956), the remake of of the Woolrich movie Fear in the Night. It’s probably the earliest but least imagintaive “homages” done of that iconic scene.

    • Thanks John, that’s really interesting – mind you, is Nightmare really an hommage? Shane’s original version of the film, Fear in the Nightt, actually came out before Shanghai (though after it finished shooting due to Columbia’s tinkering) so …

      • John says:

        I guess you’re right. I didn’t really like FEAR IN THE NIGHT when I saw it and didn’t even remember that the first scene is almost exactly the same as in NIGHTMARE with the mirrored doors. Just watched both scenes and though the one in NIGHTMARE is an improvement it’s still very similar to the original. Now I see that they are mirrored doors and not a hall of mirrors as in LADY FROM SHANGHAI. And the three actors really don’t travel through a maze they just stand in front of the mirrors.

        • None the less John it’s a striking image and I think it’s an excellent call you made as I’ve not seen the movie referenced in relation to the Welles pic before – I was definitely impressed!

  9. neer says:

    I want to watch it just for that Loverrrr thing you mentioned. Thanks Sergio.

    • Thanks Neeru – Sloane comes up with all kinds of ways to deliver the line and they are all wonderful – Welles felt that he was primarily a radio actor and his vocal delivery is very subtle – hope you enjoy it!

  10. Yvette says:

    Terrific review, Sergio. (Will I ever tire of saying this? No.) I saw this film ages and ages ago and of course all I remember is Rita as a blond and the hall of mirrors scenes. Wait…wait, was there a scene in which Welles wears a striped long sleeved t-shirt? Everything else is a blur. If I spot the film at Wal-Mart, I may just have to pick it up.

  11. I don’t recall seeing a young Orson Welles in his earlier films, or even Rita Hayworth for that matter, though my parents and other elders in the family often went overboard with actors of their time. I’m glad I can relate to most of those actors and the films they starred in. I’m lining up both the book and the film for some very worthwhile entertainment. Thank you, Sergio.

  12. TracyK says:

    If I have seen this, I don’t remember, but did see bits of it recently on TCM… think I said that already when I commented on the book review. Rita Hayworth is gorgeous no matter what her hair looks like (although I would prefer to see her tap dancing) and I will have to see this movie.

    • The movie is a bit gragmented anyway so often even those that have seen it tend only to temember the highlights and setpieces. Hayworth plays a very interesting character, even a haunted one and she’s great in it – but I know what you mean, I love her in her appearances opposite Astaire and Kelly though I always thought she was underrated as a comedic actress – I love her performance in the title role opposite Jimmy Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde, one of my favourite movies of the 1940s.

  13. Happened to have recorded this about 2-weeks ago and watched it the other day for the first time.
    Quite a movie, really enjoyed Rita Hayworth in this.

  14. Todd Mason says:

    As always, if not always expressed, thanks for this fine review, among so many…and now I’m thanking you for your S&S reviewing, too…in the most recent issue here in the States (December), you mention that the MONTALBANO tv series in their subtitles make no effort to get across the flavor of the Sicilian dialect the dialog is (mostly?) in…is this comprehensible to most Italians? Is it more like a creole, or simply slightly divergent, the way the Spanish dialects (mostly) are?

    • Thanks as always Todd, we are all in your debt. As for my moonlighting for Sight & Sound, wow, I had no idea they sold that all the way across the pond!! The dialect in Montalbano, especially as written in the books, is in fact pretty impenetrable for most Italians and indeed it is very much part of Camilleri’s project to bring it back to some degree into wider acceptance. The TV show is necessarily much less linguistically challenging though a fair amount is used and does require some specialised (or shall we say, localised) knowledge – I rely on my Dad to explain the really hard bits as he knows the books backwards!

  15. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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