Like most good Orson Welles’ films, attempting to diagnose the plot of the film can be a daunting task, but I’ll give it my best effort. Orson Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish sailor who meets the lovely and dangerous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) during a mugging in Central Park. Elsa recruits Michael to serve on her husband’s yacht on a cruise through the South Seas. A sinister and dark murder plot develops and the truth isn’t known until the very end.
Made in 1946 and released in 1948, The Lady and Shanghai was one of the big films made by Welles after returning from relative exile for making Citizen Kane. Dark, brooding and expressing some early Cold War paranoia, this film stands tall as a Film-Noir crime film. The cinematography of this film is filled with Welles’ characteristic quirks of odd angles, quick cuts, long pans and sinister lighting. The use of ambient street music is a precursor to the incredible long opening shot in Touch of Evil, and the mysterious Chinese characters and the sequences in Chinatown can only be considered as the inspiration, in many ways, to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Unfortunately, it is Welles’ obsession with technical filmmaking that hurts this film in its entirety. The plot of this story is often lost behind a sometimes incomprehensible clutter of film techniques.
However, despite this criticism, the story combined with wonderful performances by Welles, Hayworth and especially Glenn Anders (Laughter) make this film a joy to watch. Orson Welles pulls off not only the Irish brogue, but the torn identities as the honest but dangerous sailor. Rita Hayworth, who was married to Welles at the time, breaks with her usual roles as a sex goddess and takes on a role of real depth and contradictions. Finally, Glenn Anders strange and bizarre portrayal or Elsa’s husbands’ law partner is nothing short of classic!
Despite the films minor flaws, with its evil and malicious characters, leftist political commentary, heavy sexual innuendo, bizarre setting and cinematography, it is a true Noir masterpiece of it’s time.