The fact that the making of this film involved quite a bit of back-and-forth between Orson Welles and the studio doesn’t particularly surprise this reviewer. For one thing, the beginning is sl-o-o-o-w. Michael O’Hara (played by Orson Welles, as if he were in an Irish Spring commercial) meets the lovely Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in Central Park. He comes to her rescue when a bunch of thugs attach her. After a flirty ride to her home together by carriage, Michael learns that Elsa’s married to Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the amazing crippled disabled criminal defense attorney. When Bannister later offers Michael a job as a seaman on his yacht, Michael accepts the offer, despite all the red flags waving merrily in his face.
At that point, the movie takes its time establishing the set-up. But it boils down to this. Bannister’s partner, George Grisby (played by Glenn Anders) offers Michael $5,000 to kill him (kill Grisby, that is). A kind of suicide by paid assassin – except not really. Grisby tells Michael that he wants to fake his death to get away from his wife (and his awful life in general). He assures Michael that signing a confession to killing him won’t hurt him, because the law says that unless you can produce a body, you can’t convict someone of murder.
Michael, who needs the money to take Elsa away from Bannister, swallows this story hook, line and sinker.
Now, that’s the second reason this film is a bit tough to get through. The notion that Grisby (who, frankly, comes across as a complete loon) could convince Michael to sign a confession to a crime he didn’t commit stretches the limits of credibility more than a bit. And with all the singing, picnicking, and sailing, the film creeps along for roughly 40 minutes or so. But we learn in that time that Rita Hayworth makes a sexy blonde, Bannister likes to goad people (and has some kind of hold over Elsa, in the form of a past indiscretion), Grisby seems crazy (but could be crazy like a fox), and a PI named Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia) has been spying on Elsa while working as a butler at the Bannister’s happy home.
The real fun begins when Michael tries to stop Grisby from killing Bannister, only to find Bannister alive and Grisby dead. And then not only is there a body, but there’s the signed confession, which Michael was too blinded by Rita’s blonde hair or her singing to realize was a big mistake.
On top of all that, Michael discovers that nearly all the shit Grisby told him was lies. And then, knowing that his wife is attracted to Michael, Bannister ends up defending him for murder. Badly.
However, in its defense, the film makes great use of on-location settings. Plus, the funhouse scene ending has become iconic. The surreal effect of seeing Michael wake up in the funhouse, wander about, hurtle down a chutes-and-ladders-type slide, then enter the hall of mirrors, where the final confrontation of the movie takes place is unforgettable.
Despite its various flaws, The Lady from Shanghai is, if nothing else, unusual for its time. And since Orson Welles was something of a visionary, his attempt to make a “literary” film noir, if you will, seems laudable. So … if you do watch the movie and find it initially tedious or possibly predictable, just stick it out. What comes later makes it well worth the wait.
That said, this movie should get at least one thumb up!