The Lady From Shanghai (1947) Review

The Lady From Shanghai (1947) Director: Orson Welles


Based on a 1938 novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, this remarkable film noir stars married couple Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles himself (controversially, Welles asked Hayworth to chop her and dye her famous red hair for the film). Shortly after the release of the film, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth finalized their divorce.

In the film, Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish sailor who rescues a blonde woman (Rita Hayworth) one night from assailants attacking her carriage in Central Park, NY. He learns her name is Elsa, and that she is married. Elsa and her husband, a disabled defense attorney named Mr. Bannister, invite Michael onto their boat. They are planning to sail down the Panama Canal and up to San Francisco. Reluctantly Michael agrees to join for the trip (he serves as our narrator with questionable motives). Mr. Bannister’s partner Brisby also joins them and he persistently beckons Michael into a plot –to stage a fake killing of Mr. Bannister in exchange for $5,000, which would allow the new secret lovers, Elsa and Michael, to run away together. However privately, Brisby actually intends to kill Bannister and frame Michael for his death. A private investigator Broome discovers the plot but he is shot but not killed by Brisby. The case is brought to trial, but Michael escapes in faking an attempted suicide. He reunites with Elsa in a Chinese theatre, when he soon discovers that Elsa was the true killer of Brisby. The movie concludes with a climactic and famous shootout in the boardwalk madhouse, with confusion about who is shooting as the funhouse mirrors continuously shatter. In the end, both spouses shoot each other, both Bannister and Elsa are mortally wounded. Michael leaves the scene as Elsa screams in pain. The film closes with his words: “Maybe I’d forget her. Maybe I’d die trying.”

The Lady From Shanghai was praised upon its release in Europe, but largely overlooked in the United States. While receiving mixed reviews in its heyday, today we can acknowledge the film as another brilliant masterpiece from Orson Welles.

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