Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai is an excessive, tortured, bravura piece of showmanship, very much a filmmaker’s film, a baroque extravaganza calculated to prove that the man at the helm can amaze with even the trashiest material. Usually when filmmakers try such a stunt, they demonstrate only that they are in over their heads. Welles, on the other hand, comes pretty close to proving that it is possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Nonetheless, Lady is also an obvious example of Welles’s greatest flaw as a filmmaker. Astonishing in parts, the whole feels like a collection of wreckage. One virtuoso moment tumbles out after another, calculated, presumably, to stay ahead of the viewer’s capacity to follow what is happening. Only occasionally do the moments gel into anything greater than breathless flourishes.
The most famous of these moments is undoubtedly the shoot out in the hall of mirrors near the end of the film. Imitated countless times, it has never been equaled in brilliance of execution. Less famous, but more incisive, are the courtroom sequences. In addition to demonstrating how solemn proceedings can be turned into a farce performed for the gallery, the frantic, scattered, disjointed execution reinforces a vision of “justice” perverted by ambition and personal animosity. Every shot is conceived to show each character at his or her worst; every cut keeps us on edge.
My favorite scene occurs earlier in the story. As the main character Michael O’Hara (Welles) stands by helplessly, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), the business partner of attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), passes a cigarette to Bannister’s wife, Elsa (Rita Hayworth). All of them are on Bannister’s yacht, and Elsa is lying flat against the deck. As Grisby hands the cigarette to Elsa, the camera tracks along with his hand, giving the camera the opportunity to travel the length of her body, caressing her exquisite form while Bannister and his partner snipe at each other and Michael stews in his juice. In narrative terms, the moment couldn’t be simpler, but it is fraught with barely suppressed tensions, hatreds and desires, arcing like crossed wires, and just as dangerous.
Which is to say that the pyrotechnics sometimes do serve a purpose beyond showing off. In fact, despite origins in a trash novel that Welles reputedly bought in desperation, beneath the phantasmagorical surfaces, Lady provides a grim portrayal of the American bourgeoisie at its scheming, greedy worst. Bannister doesn’t have a yacht out of love of the sea, for example. He took the boat as spoils from an antagonist he ruined. While it would be a mistake to make too much of that corrosive vision (the film is obviously first and foremost an excuse for self-indulgent display), it would be no less short sighted not to recognize how much the content contributes to the film’s acidulous atmosphere, and how it and Welles’s astonishing effects reinforce each other.