As a not so secret admirer of Orson Welles and his films, I feel I can safely and honestly say that “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947) is a disaster. I have been watching this film for years and every time I sit through it, hoping to change my opinion, I become more and more frustrated by the end. Of course it didn’t have to be this way. Once again, if everyone (and by everyone, I mean Columbia Picture President Harry Coen) would have left our cinematic “knight in shining armor” alone, perhaps “The Lady from Shanghai” would today be a masterpiece.
The plot, as confusing as it is, revolves around an Irish drifter named Michael O’Hara (Welles). While walking through the park, he meets and then saves his damsel in distress, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). O’Hara is enamored by Elsa, and even though she is married, O’Hara eventually becomes convinced to take a job aboard Elsa’s wealthy husband’s (Everett Sloane) yacht. Merciless to the allure of Elsa, O’Hara gets himself entangled in a murder mystery, with little hope of surviving unscathed, despite his best intentions.
Orson Welles said he would never work for Columbia Pictures or Harry Coen. The stories on the origins of this film differ slightly, with the overall consensus being that Welles was in desperate need of a substantial amount of money for his stage production of “Around the World in 80 Days”. He made a deal with Coen and the money was exchanged for Welles to write, direct and star in this film. Welles’ heart wasn’t in it at this point, but like so many of his projects, he developed a unique vision for the film he wanted to create, and fell in love with his own ideas. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly), his vision wasn’t shared by Harry Coen. It seems that they disagreed on every single aspect of the film, and the foundation of the movie was doomed before filming even began.
There has been much speculation as to why Welles agreed to work with his estranged wife, Rita Hayworth, and personally I have chosen to believe that he did it with the best of intentions. Yes, he had her cut her adored hair short and bleach it blonde, but not to hurt her career (as some have insinuated) or infuriate Coen (although that does sound like fun). The truth is that Welles and Hayworth have an undeniable chemistry together, and their strained real life relationship only added to the effectiveness of their characters love hate relationship on the screen. Besides, as the femme fatale of this film, it is easy to believe that Welles would be captivated by Hayworth’s beauty, because it was true.
At the time the film was made Coen publicly voiced his disappointment in Welles for running long on the shooting schedule and going over budget. Truth be told, he came in under budget and on time, but Coen was unhappy with the style and approach Welles used, and forced him to reshoot many random singular shots on a Hollywood sound stage. Welles had initially avoided many close-up shots in order to change the overall feel of the film, but Coen didn’t want the glamorous Hayworth to go unappreciated. In addition to the numerous close-up’s that were forced upon Welles, he was also instructed to include a song for Hayworth, as that was customary for her films.
Then the real problems started. When Welles initially turned in his completed film, it had a running time of 155 minutes, which Coen deemed unacceptable. Coen supervised lengthy edits and ended up cutting 68 minutes of footage, leaving the film at a brisk and unentertaining 87 minutes. No wonder the final product is a disaster; it’s missing almost half of the film! How can a complex plot hold up when all the details are deleted?
I will never understand why people hired Welles to make a film and then would take it apart bit by bit. Even at this early stage in his career, everyone seemed to understand what you could expect from his films, so why hand him so much freedom during shooting, only to dismantle his work in the editing room? Of course all the footage that was removed has now disappeared and is considered lost, so there is no way to know if the film could have be good, but I can promise that the film that has been left for us is only bearable because of the glimpses of genius that somehow survived. Even the final climactic sequence in the “hall of mirrors” has been edited from an original twenty minutes down to about four. Although these four minutes are filled with brilliance, it is easy to see how rushed and anti-climactic it has become.
As I sit here irritated by the debacle that is “The Lady from Shanghai”, I wonder how Welles continued to make films in a system that obviously stunted his creative and artistic abilities. Did he go into every project knowing that they would destroy his vision? He was superior to many of his contemporaries, but because he didn’t follow the rules he was deemed an outsider and punished for his creativity. It’s no wonder that Welles only made films sporadically throughout his career.