The 1947 film The Lady From Shanghai, written, produced, and directed by Orson Welles is rightly celebrated for the startling inventiveness of its Hall of Mirrors dénouement, most especially striking when Everett Sloane, playing a crippled lawyer, Arthur Bannister, multiply appears supported by his two canes, stiffleggedly lurching forward like a wooden soldier. However, despite those advocates who proclaim the movie’s status as a masterpiece of film noir, the truth is that it is no better than dull gray.
Welles had his role as director left off the credits list, probably miffed because the studio excised about an hour from the original running time. But the problem with the film is not what was cut out, but what was left in. And that begins with Welles himself, who took on the hero’s role (Michael O’Hara, also known as “Black Irish”) and provided a sporadic voiceover for the Hibernian merchant sailor, delivered not in a vaudeville Oyrish, but in an aren’t-we-all-poets-at-heart-we-folks-from the-land-of-the-little-people voice, which might have been conjured up by Eugene O’Neill only in the throes of a bad spell of insomnia. And then there’s Welles’ countenance--the smoothness of his jawline, the softness of his cheeks. O’Hara is a man who has lived a life on the open seas, has killed a man in Spain, and done time in prisons in several countries, while his portrayer doesn’t look as if he spent even one hour in after-class detention in grade school.
The movie gets going with O’Hara spotting Bannister’s wife, Elsa, (Rita Hayworth) riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. “Once I’d seen her—but once I’d seen her—I was not in my right mind for quite some time.” If that was the case, he was the mildest romantic madman in history. He backs away when he very quickly learns she is married, and rather reluctantly allows himself to become a crewman on Bannister’s yacht after the lawyer hunts him down at the seaman’s hiring hall.
Hayworth, herself, is, well, not really herself in the movie. Her famous long red hair has been cropped and dyed a standard Hollywood blondish. She’s pretty, but Hollywood-standardish pretty. The movie offers a few shots of her in a bathing suit, but no sex appeal oozes from her. Supposedly, Elsa Bannister has a past filled with hard knocks and hard living (out in the Far East; apparently that’s why she’s the Lady from Shanghai), but as with Welles, there’s no sign that grit and abrasion have had any effect on Hayworth’s features. And her voice has that dead affectlessness you hear in middling dubbing jobs.
As the yacht makes its leisurely way from New York City to San Francisco Bay via the Panama Canal and a longish sequence in Acapulco, there’s not very much noir or tension but lots of sunlight and water. Except for Sloane, the rest of the actors read off their lines in the typical Hollywood character part manner: a fake Brooklyn accent here, a curl of the lip and a snarl there. There’s a courtroom scene late in the day, which offers second-rate Three Stooges decorum, and a few crowd scenes that Welles directs with the aplomb of a bullock organizing events at Pamplona.
In sum, in this hash of a film there’s no real sense of danger lurking in the meeting (there’s no mating) of Elsa and O’Hara. You’d think with a good-looking wife, an inadequate husband, and a rootless stranger you’d have the makings of a great film noir—and you do: it’s called The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was made the year before.