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Lady from Shanghai, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A great artist making great pulp."
5 stars

The basic plot structure of "The Lady From Shanghai" is quite a familiar noir template - a man who's tougher than he is smart falls for a beautiful woman above his station; she surprisingly reciprocates, claiming that her life isn't as perfect as he imagines; they make plans to run away together, but before they can, there's a little murder that must be done. This one, though, has Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and that's a combination that that can give any movie quite a boost.

Welles plays Michael O'Hara, an Irish sailor with no fixed address who meets a pretty girl and even comes off as a hero for breaking up a mugging. He and Elsa (Rita Hayworth) hit it off - she's as well-traveled as he is - until she asks if he might crew on her yacht. Well, her husband's yacht. Recognizing a bad situation, Michael determines to ship out on the next vessel hiring, only to have Elsa's husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the greatest trial lawyer in the country, come down to the docks to ask for him personally. So there he is, on a boat with the pair, sailing to California via the Panama Canal. They're joined by Bannister's partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who is terrified of the new specter of atomic war, and has a proposition for Michael. Five thousand dollars might be enough money for Michael and Elsa to run away on...

In addition to staring opposite Hayworth, his wife at the time, Orson Welles wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed this movie, and even if it's not quite the very best of his works, it's worth noting that this movie was very nearly made by William Castle (as with Rosemary's Baby at the other end of his career, he settled for a producer credit). And bless his heart, the way Welles and company play The Lady from Shanghai out is kind of loopy from start to end: Welles's narration is equal parts broad Irish accent and tough-guy dialogue, with a dry self-referentiality, even the smallest character is played somewhat larger-than-life, and the final showdown in an abandoned amusement park is equal parts absurd slapstick and artsy cinematography. Welles isn't quite dead serious about things that would today be played as parody, but there's no mockery to his approach. He was an artist who saw the grandeur in pulp.

That's clear not just in his performance, but the ones around him. Welles is a fine noir lead, soft-hearted enough to fall in love even if he is hard-headed enough to know better - or maybe it should be the other way around - but the most memorable performance may be Glenn Anders as Grisby. The combination of a weapon which could destroy civilization and the character's cynicism about his fellow man has him practically deranged, and Anders gleefully cranks the mania as high as it will go so that his careening performance hints at just how out of control - if brainy - Grisby is. Everett Stone goes the other way, a melancholy sad sack who exaggerates how pathetic Arthur is by how he leans on his canes and slurs his words when drinking, while still keeping how sharp the character is within easy reach. Ted De Corsia and Gus Schilling have to play big just to get noticed.

Plus, Rita Hayworth. Good gravy, is she beautiful in this movie, playing the sort of woman who is so beguiling that, even as Welles's Michael O'Hara and the audience realize that he is slipping into a mire from which there may be no escape, it's hard to think that it's the result of anything but a man's own nature - women like this just can't help but leave a string of wrecked men in their wake. For all her glamour, she manages to seduce with her attainability toward the beginning, coming off as the girl next door even with every reminder that she's extraordinary. Hayworth was not always the greatest actress, but this part fit her as well as the designer dresses and bathing suits.

Orson Welles is best known for his extremes; over the course of his career he went from matinee idol to bloated, maestro to mercenary, high art to pulp fiction. Here, he's in full control at his movie-star best, creating something that is as joyfully out there as it is polished.

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originally posted: 03/17/12 10:48:16
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User Comments

5/23/15 Roz absurd, frequently just plain irritating 2 stars
3/22/12 Justin Venter This movie was extremely enjoyable 5 stars
10/19/10 R.W. Welch Been a while, but I recall this as a clever yarn with a striking hall of mirrors climax. B+ 4 stars
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  09-Jun-1948 (NR)
  DVD: 03-Oct-2000

  07-Mar-1948 (PG)

  N/A (PG)

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