Is The Lady from Shanghai the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Orson Welles was in almost every movie he directed, but his performing career extended far beyond that. His most notable performance, or at least I think it should be, is as the evil Harry Lime in The Third Man. Welles brings a sinister, yet aloof, quality to his villains, almost without fail. When he does go for the full serious treatment I think it tends to get away from him, but when he’s playing someone closer to the Bogart style of lead, it really works.

People didn’t know what to do with his performance in The Lady from Shanghai in 1947 and 1948. Welles produced, directed, and starred in it. He wrote the screenplay, at least in part, and narrated it as the very Irish Michael O’Hara. Welles as a one-man show was not uncommon, but this was one of the films that cemented why that might not always be a great idea. The studio was apparently baffled by Welles’ cut and asked for reshoots and further editing. The finished product wasn’t exactly what he wanted to make, but it is a masterpiece of crime drama and film noir.

Welles wanted it to be longer, but he always wanted it to be longer. The final confrontation in a hall of mirrors has become one of the most iconic scenes of the era and Welles designed it to be long and sprawling, but it is an abrupt climax in the finished product. Welles was already doing almost everything and it’s for the best that he didn’t have the final say here, but that raises questions that we don’t have the space to answer. Welles was a genius but maybe tried to do too much, and we’re all the better off that in this case, and maybe only this case, someone had the sense to keep the gold and dial some of it back.

Michael O’Hara (Welles) is a sailor who saves Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in the park late one night. It turns out she was armed with a gun but didn’t use it, which O’Hara only discovers after they ride around in her carriage and flirt about their separate times spent abroad. We get the sense that they’re both fascinating characters with mysterious histories, but the gun and the discovery that Elsa is married is enough to send Michael home without even keeping her card. She asks to hire him on for a cruise on a yacht but he refuses, going so far as to tear up the card in front of her to remove all doubt.

The Lady from Shanghai is full of moments like this. It’s a beautiful moment because it tells us even more about Michael while keeping Elsa hidden. When her husband, in extensive leg braces, comes to find Michael the next day, we still don’t understand why there’s so much importance on this one Irish sailor. Against his instincts, Michael signs on to the yacht, but only after answering a question about what he drinks with “doesn’t have to be wholesome, just so as long as it’s strong.”

We only get backstory from Michael O’Hara in pieces. Mostly, we see Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), rich and famous defense attorney, and his business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) taunt O’Hara and offer confusing propositions as they get drunk at sea. No one here seems very happy, but what’s extra notable is the slow, almost nonexistent pacing of the love story. Elsa and Michael are young and beautiful and it becomes clear she was coerced into marrying Arthur, though it takes time to figure out what’s actually happening with this foursome.

This frustrated audiences and the studio and the movie was a failure. It’s been rethought, but that probably was cold comfort for Welles. The cuts robbed him of his exact vision and audiences didn’t like the finished product, though they wouldn’t have liked his version better, based on what was cut. The Lady from Shanghai can be tough to follow, especially once the actual mystery gets going, but that’s the point.

This is not a love story. This is the story of Michael O’Hara, a man who got roped into a very weird situation and never really got the whole story. If you were in his shoes, this is how you’d experience it. The narration helps, especially to set the tone but also to keep the ending on track. Welles mostly pulls off the accent, at least so far as it doesn’t get distracting, but he absolutely pulls off the character itself. This is one of my favorite performances of his and it’s almost entirely in how he rides out what other leading men of the time would have sold as confused or scared. Welles gives a tight performance, even during the extreme ending, and the result only makes us more interested in what Michael O’Hara was doing in Spain before he met this woman in the park.

The actual plot is only complicated in the moment, but in the end it’s all clear and directly explained. It’s the deeper elements, trying to figure out who is siding with who and at which moments, that makes it such a great story. Welles put his signature style on it and they let him keep a lot of it, but they couldn’t take anything out of his performance. Welles and Hayworth were on the brink of divorce while filming this and one imagines that helped sell what is a fire-and-ice love story to begin with, though that may be reading in too far. Whatever the case, the things people found tricky or frustrating about The Lady from Shanghai are what make it so great today. It’s a mystery and a love story but really it’s a character study, but it never goes too deep in any direction. The result is a breezy 88 minutes that holds your attention and makes you wonder about everything you aren’t seeing and the secret lives of these very strange people on this very strange ship.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? This is a lot better than I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Both could be called “confounding” and both are only wrapped up with meaning in the last five minutes, but this journey is more worthy of your time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still will go with Persona, though this is a tough call. I’ve seen this movie a few times and every time I rewatch it I find something new to love. This time it was the very big, overstated performance by Glenn Anders, who plays George Grisby. It’s an almost silly role, but that only lends to the difference between him and O’Hara. Welles is so tight, especially in scenes with Anders, that it reflects back on lines like “just tell them you were doing a little target practice” as an explanation, somehow, for why someone would be firing a gun in a public place. It’s all part of the tone and it really, really works.

You can watch The Lady from Shanghai on Amazon Prime (free with a subscription). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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