Orson Welles In Deep Focus- The Lady From Shanghai

“D'you know, once off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black...”, begins Orson Welles in his memorable “picnic speech” in The Lady from Shanghai. In the context of the scene, a group of wealthy socialites bickering with one another, an audience is right in asking where they are being taken. It's a question that Welles himself purposefully poses again and again throughout the film. With his intentionally complex screenplay, willful distortion of mise-en-scene, and an editing style that seems frantic, The Lady from Shanghai is one of the first film noirs that truly explores the theme that has become a tenet of the genre: the world is a dark and unknowable, and even our own perceptions can't be entirely trusted.

In the realm of film noir, The Lady from Shanghai's convoluted plot is hardly unique. Promoting a sense of confusion has always been essential to the genre in giving the audience the same feeling of bewilderment that a noir protagonist often faces. Therefore, that even Welles was reportedly unable to untangle the plot of The Lady from Shanghai to Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn, should come as no great surprise. However, a summary of the film would go something like this: 

Michael O'Hara (Welles, with a conspicuous Irish brogue) is walking through Central Park when he meets the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Hayworth). After saving her from being robbed by a band of young street toughs, Elsa has her husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane, in a wonderfully creepy performance),  hire him on as a deck hand for their sea voyage to San Francisco. Along the way, Arthur's equally sleazy law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders) offers Michael $5,000 to “murder” him. Michael accepts the offer in order to run away with Elsa whom he has fallen in love with over the course of the voyage. Unknown to Michael, Grisby's offer is just a cover to frame Michael for the murder of Arthur Bannister, a murder that George is to commit once they arrive in San Francisco. However, his scheme goes awry when he kills Arthur's private investigator, and George is in turn shot dead. Michael is accused of killing him and is put on trial that will most certainly end in his being sent to the gas chamber. Michael, sensing this, feigns a suicide attempt and escapes to a Chinatown theater. There he meets Elsa and discovers that she is behind all of the plotting and murdering. After passing out and awakening in a fun house, Michael confronts Elsa. Arthur Bannister soon arrives, and a spectacular confrontation occurs in a house of mirrors, leaving both of the Bannisters dead. Michael walks away from the dying Elsa and comments that he hopes he lives long enough to forget about her.

As convoluted as the plot is, it would not be entirely accurate, however, judging from Welles' other work, that he was simply uninterested in telling a straightforward story; the year before The Lady from Shanghai was released, Welles had co-written and directed The Stranger, a noir practically devoid of mystery and one that earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It is much more likely that Welles merely wished to experiment with how the medium of film itself could serve to more fully illustrate the nature of mystery found in film noir. That he intentionally makes the plot murky and ambiguous, with Elsa's backstory never being explained and the general confusion over who killed who, and why, only functions to provide the backbone for his manipulative exploration of mise-en-scene.

As such, one sees elements of ambiguity presented on screen from the very beginning of the movie; the opening credits are superimposed over images of the open ocean and waves breaking near the shore. Already, Welles is trying to associate the film with the fluidity and unknowableness of the depths of the sea. Next, the mysterious Elsa Bannister, played by Rita Hayworth, is introduced. To add to Elsa's shady past and suspicious motives, Welles gives an edge of unfamiliarity to a household name by having Hayworth's hair, well known for being long and auburn, cut short and dyed platinum blonde. In doing so, Welles intentionally puts Hayworth, whose physical features would normally be easily recognizable to a contemporary audience, at a distance from the spectators. 

The motif of Elsa's “apartness” is revisited throughout the film; on their voyage, she is first seen alone on the distant rocks through George Grisby's spyglass, and during the conversations on the yacht and at the picnic between Michael and Arthur Bannister, she usually doesn't occupy the screen at the same time as they do. When she is shown, she is given dominance and framed unusually with a diagonal orientation. Even when Elsa and Michael meet at the aquarium to discuss the possibility of running away together, they are given separate frames, their faces primarily bathed in shadows. Behind them, Welles again reinforces ambiguity with the fluid in the water tanks, this time adding horrific images of sharks and moray eels that are unnaturally magnified by the glass. With this, Welles highlights that any future Michael has with Elsa is uncertain and dangerous, and that the audience should be just as wary as to where this romance will lead.

Along with the ambiguity presented in the film is the unusual and sometimes jarring way in which Welles chooses to present it. From the story's beginning in Central Park to the slow boat ride to San Francisco to Michael's trial and its aftermath, the film packs a great deal of information into a small time frame and perhaps leaves even more information out entirely. Though it is well known that Welles lost control of the film in post-production and that a large portion of footage was edited out, it is questionable whether the original version would have been any less elliptical than the 90 minute version that it was cut down to be. The jumping from scene to scene seems intentional, as though Welles is trying to show how a true noir must have missing pieces in order for the audience not to know which direction the story will take.

An example of this method is found in the scene in which Grisby begins to outline the plot to have himself murdered by Michael. The two men walk along a hill near the beaches of Acapulco with a coy Grisby casually asking Michael to commit a murder for $5,000. As is typical in this film, Grisby is not very forthcoming with the particulars, promising to “fill in the details later”. Grisby's apparent lack of interest in “the details” of his plot mirror Welles' reticence to fill in his own audience. The plot itself is of little importance; that Michael is entering into a dangerous proposition without key pieces of information is. The way in which Welles films this scene is also of interest. The two men are traveling in the same direction and primarily walk across the screen from left to right, however the position of the camera and its distance from the characters on screen shift wildly. Medium and long shots, as well as close ups, are seemingly interspersed at random, and the camera shifts from eye level to low or high angle in a jarring manner. Even the lengths of shots themselves differ significantly, giving the scene a staccato pacing. Though some of this can perhaps be attributed to the editing of the shortened version, there is little doubt that Welles intended for this scene to be confusing, to beg the question: which way of coming at this is the correct way, or is there one? Furthermore, it must be recalled that Michael, as narrator, opens the film by telling the audience that “[he] was not in [his] right mind” during the course of these events. The scene between Grisby and Michael simply serves to highlight the fact that Michael, or Welles, is telling a story, and that the manipulation of perspective is the best way to convey the state of mind of its protagonist.

It is telling that Welles consistently reminds the audience that a manipulation is taking place, particularly with his repeated use of glass and mirrors to alter perspective. Through the matte of a spyglass, George Grisby is first introduced as he peers at Elsa diving into the ocean, by using convex lenses, the animals at the aquarium are transformed into terrifying sea monsters, and, most famously, the climax of the film is set in a house of mirrors that reflect the actors from almost every conceivable angle and are spectacularly destroyed as Elsa's plot comes crashing down around her. 

The idea that one's personality can never be accurately examined or judged through one point of view is a theme that Welles frequently brought up in his own work. Of course, the entire story of his first film, Citizen Kane, revolves around this idea, and he would return to it in his last feature, F for Fake, a film that explores the power of art's ability to bend the truth. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the true nature of the Bannisters is revealed when they are looked upon by as many points of view as possible. Even so, the revelation of their characters becomes complete when the shootout commences; theirs is a destructive nature, and in the course of their gun battle that shatters ever mirror in the house, even the camera lens itself appears to be shot. It is here that Michael completes his metaphor that started at the picnic. As Elsa lays dying, Michael says of the Bannisters, “Like the sharks, mad with their own blood. Chewin' away at their own selves.” And with the glass shattered and the truth revealed, Welles' interest in the story is over; the film ends 2 minutes later with little in the way of a coda. By inserting the glass and mirror imagery, it is seen that Welles is constantly reinforcing his theme of the lens' power to distort and enhance reality. Rather than shy away from this notion as many film makers do, Welles delights in it; the magician is always much more concerned with what he can make people believe is happening rather than what is real.

With The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles did more than most film makers up to that point in accurately conveying to an audience the confusion and paranoia that the noir world strives to depict. Through his direction, the audience, much like Michael, becomes tangled up in the film's web, and Welles becomes something of a co-conspirator, giving up as little information as possible, misdirecting the audience, and bending the truth when necessary. Especially in the context of his other works, The Lady from Shanghai can only be seen as the work of a master manipulator and one that is well suited to the dark and unpredictable world of film noir.

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Comments 2 comments

Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Goodness, I really must see this film! You've presented it as something so alluring- so well-constructed! Thanks for the excellent review.


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Great review on a great film....welcome to hub pages...I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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