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.

Galveston, a Novel: True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto Fails to Find the Spirit of Noir


Austin Duck

Typically, and, most likely, to your chagrin, I write about high-minded (read: pretentious) writing because, honestly, that’s what does it for me. I’m a bit of a douchebag, yes, (though who in English grad school isn’t?), but, more than that, I’ve spent so much time reading around, trying to find something that was intellectually and emotionally nourishing…

See, I stopped reading for fun or to be entertained a long time ago (I’ve never forget a lit. theory professor walking into our undergrad class and explaining “If you love to read, get the hell out of here. If you want to work, you’re where you belong” [she was a superbadass lady, obvs.]) and, instead, have grown to expect, even delight in reading a page and thinking to myself: What the fuck just happened? Where could this possibly be going? Why would the author say/do that, make that move, allude to that, etc.?

Sure, it gives me pleasure to think that I can keep up with, even anticipate, the moves of some of our most sophisticated artistic minds (again, because I’m a douchebag), but it also works to shape how I (and a lot of people I know) do other things: watch TV (just look at Jon May’s writing on this site), see movies, hell, sometimes (not always, but sometimes), it’ll affect how you read a restaurant menu. What I’m trying to say is that a pursuit like this, as needless (arguable) and pretentious (assuredly) as it may be, is powerfully altering.

And that’s why I get so mad when something that could be outstanding — that, with all available evidence, should be outstanding — simply isn’t. I know a lot of you watch True Detective; you should; it’s completely excellent. I certainly won’t be trashing TD here because, various misguided (or not so) criticisms of gender, pacing, and over-dramatization aside, True Detective is an outstanding television show, and one that easily rivals (in its acting, its plot, its engagement with larger philosophical ideas) any Breaking Bad-esque show that keeps fanboys salivating and arguing its Shakespearean merits. Yes, it’s really that good. And what seems to make it so good is that the entire series (eight episodes) is directed by one person and written by one. There’s no room of writers kicking around ideas on this one; instead, it’s a developed, articulate, and extremely focused exploration of human depravity, corruption, and negativist philosophy.

So obviously, I was sold. I was like Nic Pizzolatto, where have you been all my life? Seriously. Noir and detective novels have always been something that I enjoyed, and, when I found out this guy started as a fiction writer and an academic, I was fucking stoked. Like the closet Homer Simpson that I am dutifully set aside my (now pretty serious) foray into contemporary Hungarian literature (I know, I’ll kill myself later), got some bourbon, and prepared myself for a good, old-fashioned page turner.

And then the problems started. Perhaps, though, my expectations just weren’t primed for the experience; I, after all, expected a sort of crime thriller, a novel similar in apparatus and execution to the show that’s put Pizzolatto on the map. Galveston (Scribner, 2011), however, is a completely different beast, a true noir centered around that a classic noir-trope: a search for a home that doesn’t exist, that was invented to give meaning to, and soothe the wounds of, the present.

It starts with seedy “bag-man” Roy Cady discovering he has lung cancer, learning that his girl has gone on to fuck his boss, and him being sent to do a “job” that he clearly isn’t meant to survive. However, of course, he does (as does the young prostitute Rocky) and the rest (or, at least, the majority thereof) is spent with these characters running from said boss, to Galveston specifically, to stay in the seediest ocean-front motel imaginable with a cast of characters that seem to be in constant competition to determine who’s the most revolting and outrageous.

So far, so good, right?

Wrong. Pizzolatto makes two fatal mistakes, ones that haunt the book through and through in their miscalculations. First (and foremost), what we know about Roy, the man we’re supposed to empathize with, to see ourselves in, to discover the nature of the American noir in: he’s dying, he has no problem killing people, and, sometimes, he’s willing to sacrifice himself for other people. That’s it. Obviously, this is a problem. The novel begins with this and, coupled with Roy’s fumblingly hard-boiled persona (one that works so well in classic noir fiction because, there, the impetus is plot over personal revelation), he never… really… grows. Sure, he’s a little bit of a softy, but we know that at the beginning when he takes Rocky along for the ride rather than leaving her for dead (and from his insistence that she’s too young for him, that he’ll never have sex with her). In fact, throughout, nothing about Roy, except the currency for which he kills (first for money, later for someone else’s well-being), changes dynamically.

As a result, Galveston seems to want to have it both ways: to show us Roy the hard-boiled bagman, the seedy, intentionally flat noir anti-hero who finds his way through a troubling and increasingly grotesque situation and to characterize, to develop, in Roy and Rocky, a wandering loneliness, a longing for things to go back to a way that they never were. Unfortunately, here, these points don’t converge.

Roy is always a bit aloof (though we follow him for the entirety of the novel), a little too-constructed by the traditional demands of the noir- and detective-genres, a little too flat, for his despair to be real. He’s just a variation on a cliché: a hitman with a heart of gold, a man who, in seeing his coming death, decides to help others. It all seems a little too easy. Instead, we’re left with a book that, though it is a page-turner and will quickly pass a lonely evening, doesn’t understand the story it wants to tell, doesn’t want to commit to the tragedy of being a piece of human garbage with a conscience (as we see in True Detective’s Rust Cohle), or to the remove and plot-focus of a dime-store mystery novel. Instead, it wants to walk a line between the two, a plot-driven noir with a bit of humanistic MFA-fiction learning (developing characters, creating emotional/philosophical centers that revolve around memory and trying to get back what’s lost) and, unfortunately, Pizzolatto doesn’t quite pull it off. The characters just simply aren’t present enough to join the two threads. And maybe that’s where True Detective succeeds; actors (especially really good ones) do have a way of injecting a little humanity.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at

Image source: EW