Review by Trylon hall of mirrors designer Thorn Chen
Or how about we try “When you give a picnic, it’s a picnic”? The Lady from Shanghai is as surreal as one-liners like these make it sound. Welles is at his strangest and his most brilliant when spins this hallucinatory noir tale about a straight-shooting Irish sailor who gets himself into an indecipherable web of seduction, murder, and deceit. Rita Hayworth plays the femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, who Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) spots riding a carriage in Central Park. He is hooked immediately and offers her his last cigarette, but she wraps it up and puts it in her bag saying that she doesn’t smoke. After he improbably fights off a band of ruffians bent on kidnapping her, he picks up her bag and smokes his own cigarette. There’s a gun in her bag. He asks her why she didn’t use it. She replies, “I meant for you to find it.” Already, nothing is making any sense. There’s a plot in the air, but O’Hara can’t stop himself. Roped into working on a yacht with Elsa and her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane), a criminal lawyer he detests, Michael meets George Grisby (Glenn Anders), an even more detestable character who offers him five thousand dollars to murder himself, George Grisby. Something is fishy, but the plot keeps unraveling, leading to a furtive meeting in an aquarium and a hall of mirrors shootout in a Chinatown amusement park. Oh, did I mention that the film has a shootout in a hall of mirrors?
Apparently, Welles was not given final cut privileges over The Lady from Shanghai, a possible explanation for the film’s many incongruences. The movie doesn’t lose very much from this, however, since its entire narrative system is built on incongruities. Aside from Michael O’Hara, all the characters seem as if they’ve been cut out from another movie and plopped in this one, their severe outlines cutting sharply against the background. The effect is helped along by the abundant use of process shots that make the characters look like they were pasted on top of stock footage from exotic locales. Then there are the characters themselves. Elsa is a noir heroine with a checkered past, who masterfully gushes with emotion, or tears, when she needs to, but calculates every drop (“I’m not who you think I am, I just try to be”). Arthur is the archetype of an unscrupulous lawyer, who hires dozens of servants to throw a picnic for his wife on the Western coast of Mexico (“when you give a picnic, it’s a picnic,” says Grisby). Welles takes special glee in depicting Grisby as a loathsome wretch, who we catch many times peeping at Elsa with a spyglass, and whose face is always shown glistening in sweat. Overall, it is a film that wants us to feel how strange cinema, and as extension the world, can really be, especially when it is the world of rich scheming lawyers and their unhappy wives. Or maybe, as another interpretation might have it, it’s just the interior world of Michael’s infatuation with Elsa, as Welles relays in his Beckett-esque imitation of a noir voiceover at the film’s start: “If I’d known where it would end, I would’ve never let anything start… If I had been in my right mind, that is… Once I’d seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some time.” – Thorn Chen
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI screens Friday and Saturday, May 29 and 30, at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, June 1 at 5:00 and 7:00. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.