Lady from Shanghai, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Mar 06, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Lady from Shanghai, The (Blu-ray Review)


Orson Welles

Release Date(s)

1947 (January 31, 2023)


Columbia Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A-

The Lady from Shanghai (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


“When I start out to make a fool of myself there’s very little can stop me.” – Michael O’Hara

Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai has such sharp dialogue and wildly imaginative direction it matters little its story is so confusing. I’ve seen it six or seven times through the years, and I still can’t quite figure out certain plot details and character motivations. Howard Hawks’s famously Byzantine version of The Big Sleep is, in some respects, a model of comprehensive linear storytelling by comparison. It was Welles’s fourth completed feature film as director, following Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and The Stranger (1946). Welles said he made The Stranger to demonstrate to Hollywood’s overlords that he could make an “ordinary” commercial film, and indeed it was quite profitable, the most commercially successful of that phase of Welles’s career.

But The Stranger was hardly an ordinary film; Welles’s stamp is all over that effective noir, more so with The Lady from Shanghai. The head of Columbia Studios, Harry Cohn, no doubt figured Welles’s artistic bent had been significantly subdued, and anyway the project seemed like a safe bet: Rita Hayworth, married to Welles at the time, was the studio’s biggest star, and the project was based on a property already owned and in development by director William Castle. What could go wrong?

The Lady from Shanghai’s reputation has grown steadily through the years, partly for its justly famous house of mirrors shootout climax, but also because, well, the picture is just so damn enticingly weird.

Turner Classic Movies’ “Vault Collection” label released The Lady from Shanghai on Blu-ray in January 2014, but apparently Sony/Columbia wasn’t entirely happy with that release. They licensed a reissue the following year to budget label Mill Creek Entertainment (!) reportedly sourcing a superior 4K restoration, though unlike TCM’s release that version had no extra features. Kino’s latest Blu-ray of the film is crammed with old and new supplements.

The Byzantine plot concerns Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Welles), who in New York’s Central Park meets Elsa (Hayworth), the beautiful and well-traveled wife of celebrity defense attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael and Elsa flirt with one another, especially after he saves her from a trio of would-be muggers. She encourages him to work for him as a seaman aboard the Bannister’s yacht, sailing the next day from New York, bound for San Francisco via the Panama Canal. However, when O’Hara finds a pistol in Elsa’s handbag he senses that he’s being set up as the fall guy for some nefarious, if nebulous, scheme, and begs off.

Nevertheless, he’s persuaded to sign on, joining the Bannisters, their eccentric crew and passengers, including Bannister’s law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders) and steward-private eye-blackmailer Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia). Over the course of their glamorous voyage O’Hara repeatedly tries to quit while Elsa continues flirting with O’Hara, something everyone seems fully aware of, including Bannister himself. Meanwhile, Grisby bizarrely offers O’Hara $5,000 to have the Irishman murder him.

After the fiasco/cinematic tragedy of the aborted It’s All True (1941-42), Welles’s reputation as a filmmaker was restored somewhat when his anti-fascist noir The Stranger became a hit. (Costing just over $1 million, it grossed $3.2 million.) From there Welles directed a musical stage adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days and, as Welles tells it, desperately needed $55,000 for the release of its impounded costumes. Desperate for cash, he called Harry Cohn and, grabbing the pulp novel a girl working the box office was reading at the time, If I Should Die Before I Wake, sold the unread-by-Welles story to the studio.

In fact, William Castle, then under contract to Columbia as an assistant director/dialogue director and occasional director, claimed that he, not Welles, had purchased the rights to the book, a much more believable version of events.

Regardless, Welles did have the support of wife Rita Hayworth and the film was lavishly produced on location in Acapulco, Pie de la Cuesta, and San Francisco, though large portions of it were shot at Columbia, including much rear-projection process work, though Welles intercuts the location and process shots quite ingeniously at times. There’s even a clever bit of trickery involving a conversation between Anders and Sloane, the latter a projected image shot weeks earlier.

When it was all assembled, Cohn hated the film and vindictively ordered retakes and massive cuts, while completely ignoring Welles’s notes about the film’s score. Though Welles had delivered the film on time and on budget, studio tinkering pushed the film’s cost far beyond what was originally planned and, of course, Welles got all the blame.

It’s impossible to say whether Welles’s first cut of the film would have been any more coherent, but in the end, it hardly matters. The Lady from Shanghai is a delirious, dizzying exercise in style, its innovation stamped on every scene while the quick cutting helps make it play very modern today, if extremely weird and always off-kilter. Welles can’t resist turning even standard movie scenes, like O’Hara’s subsequent trial for capital murder, on its head.

The characters, to a one, are colorful and unforgettable, especially Anders’ sweaty, unblinking apparent lunatic. A distinguished stage actor from 1919, Anders made few films, of which this is by far his most famous screen appearance. His gleefully eccentric line delivery (“TAR-get practice!”) is one-of-a-kind. Much of Welles’s stock company is also present: Sloane, Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane, plays a character as far removed from that earlier performance as can be imagined, the crippled (and, by implication, impotent) conniving lawyer; Erskine Sanford has fun as a harried judge; Gus Schilling likewise as a sailor pal of O’Hara’s; Harry Shannon and William Alland turn up as a cab driver and courtroom reporter, respectively.

Welles, whose directorial career always overshadowed his immense talents as an actor, gives a wonderfully nuanced, sardonic performance as O’Hara, complete with authentic Irish brogue. (Welles began his acting career at Dublin’s Gate Theater.) His dialogue, written by Welles himself, is especially is rich with quotable lines, particularly this monologue that encapsulate the film’s theme:

“Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.”

Hayworth is fine playing a classically icy noir femme fatale, though her acting really doesn’t quite break through until literally her last moments in the film, maybe because by this point her true character has been revealed. (My favorite Hayworth performance, oddly enough, is in the John Wayne Circus World, an unjustly maligned epic, in which her character is the heart and soul of that picture.)

Anyway, all this is secondary to the visual virtuosity and downright audacity of Welles’s direction and the stunning cinematography of Charles Lawton, Jr. (and several others, including Rudolph Maté, uncredited). Highlights include the visual acrobatics of the courtroom scenes, and a suspenseful sequence in a Chinese theater where Welles the director focuses attention on the performers onstage, they nervously watching as police storm and search the theater in the middle of their show. (During this scene Hayworth’s Elsa locates O’Hara via her fluency in Mandarin, cleverly established earlier.) Welles’s hallucinogenic funhouse sequence may have been trimmed severely by Cohn, but enough of it remains to dazzle audiences.

Kino’s Blu-ray most probably uses the same 4K restoration of The Lady from Shanghai Sony provided to Mill Creek, but its original black-and-white, standard 1.37:1 screen shape format image unquestionably still looks great, with lots of 1080p high-def detail and inky blacks, and the English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio is also fine on this Region-Free disc, supported by optional English subtitles. Extra features are plentiful, if a bit of a free-for-all, with no less than three separate audio commentary tracks: an older one from 2000 by the late director and Welles associate Peter Bogdanovich (who also appears in an archival on-camera “conversation” running about 20 minutes) plus new ones by critic Imogen Sara Smith and critic-novelist Tim Lucas. All three are recommended for their intelligence and thoroughness, though there is a fair amount of overlap. In cases like these—multiple commentary tracks for the same title—one would like to see the label and/or commentators divvy up the workload to avert overly similar tracks. There’s not too much of this here, but Kino and other labels would do well to plan such situations more carefully than they seem to at present.

Ported over from the TCM release is a three-part featurette with noir expert Eddie Muller (running 2:34, 12:59, and 4:52) discussing the film. A trailer rounds out the supplements. (Missing from earlier releases are Robert Osbourne’s TCM introduction to the film, Simon Callow’s 21-minute appreciation, Joe Dante’s Trailers from Hell segment, booklet, and Rita Hayworth interview from 1970.)

Don’t try to figure out The Lady from Shanghai’s plot. Better to sit back and enjoy director-producer-star Orson Welles’s wonderful direction, dialogue, cutting, and camerawork, which is wildly imaginative and exciting throughout.

- Stuart Galbraith IV