THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI ($25) was not a critical or commercial success when it was released in the U.S. in 1948. In fact, it took decades for the film to be acknowledged as another Orson Welles masterpiece, albeit a flawed one. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI had started out as a small film that Welles had hoped to direct for Columbia Pictures, as a way of paying off an obligation to studio chief Harry Cohn, who had loaned Welles $50,000.00 for an ill fated stage production. Of course, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was anything but a small film and ended up starring Columbia’s biggest star, Rita Hayworth, who also happened to be Orson Welles’ estranged wife.
Since Welles wanted to create a film that was anything but a typical Rita Hayworth vehicle, he radically changed her appearance by shearing her trademark long auburn tresses and dying her shortened hair platinum blonde. As you might have guessed, the monumental change in Rita did not please Harry Cohn, nor did Welles’ completed film, which the studio cut down from its initial 2 ½ hour running time to a very tight 87 minutes. However, the effect of studio meddling rendered the convoluted plot almost incomprehensible. Despite the tampering, the power of Orson Welles’ visionary film noir remained almost fully intact.
Based upon the novel If I Die Before I Wake, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI tells the story of an Irish sailor named Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles), ashore in America, while in between jobs. Michael finds himself swimming with sharks, when he begins working on the yacht of celebrated attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and his beautiful wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth). Although he threatens to quit because of the odd behavior of Bannister and his law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders), Michael finds it impossible to leave Elsa, whom he has fallen in love with. However, when Grisby offers to pay $5,000.00 Michael to take part in a bizarre little enterprise, our somewhat naïve hero finds himself on trial for a murder he did not commit, with Bannister the only lawyer who can save him from a death sentence.
What the plot of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI lacks in originality, the film more than makes up for with Orson Welles’ visual bravado. The stark cinematography and the unique camera angles help to make THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI a film that was truly decades ahead of its time. In addition, the film’s dazzling hall of mirrors climax has become gained legendary status, becoming one of the most recognizable sequences in American cinema. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI also succeeds as a motion picture based upon the strength of its four central performances. Welles is always fascinating to watch and the Irish brogue just adds to the mystique; Rita Hayworth simply smolders as the story’s femme fatal; Everett Sloane is unforgettable as the crippled lawyer and Glenn Anders is amazing in a performance that defies description.
Columbia TriStar Home Video has done a fine job with THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, making the film available on DVD in its proper 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The black and white film element does show signs of age, with a number of scratches, blemishes noticeable film grain being present. Additionally, reel changes tend to be the most problematic aspect of the film elements. However, the black and white transfer is very crisp and an excellent representation of the film’s stark, deep focus cinematography. Blacks are pure and the image usually offers very good contrast, although there are some noticeable limitations in the portions of the film that contain optical special effects or rear screen projection. Shadow detail is purposefully limited by the design of the cinematography. Digital compression artifacts rarely make their presence known on this cleanly authored DVD.
The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack sounds quite good, considering the film’s age. There are the expected frequency limitations, although the sound never becomes distorted, harsh or hissy. Dialogue is fairly natural sounding and doesn’t have any issues with intelligibility. French, Spanish and Portuguese language soundtracks are also encoded onto the DVD, as are English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai subtitles.
The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a nice complement of extras. Director Peter Bogdanovich provides a running audio commentary for THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, during which he reads quotes from interviews that he conducted with Orson Welles. Bogdanovich also provides his own insight and comments on the film, as well as on the late, great Orson Welles, whom Bogdanovich had the distinction of calling friend. This commentary is a must listen for any fan of Welles’ work as a director. Columbia TriStar has also included a featurette on the making of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, which is also hosted by Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich provides numerous details on the film’s production, as well as dispelling some of the inaccuracies that have come to be accepted as fact. Vintage advertising, talent files and a theatrical trailer fill out the DVD’s extras.
While it is not Orson Welles’ greatest cinematic achievement, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is an important film nonetheless, displaying the director’s brilliance more often then not. Columbia TriStar’s presentation looks quite good and will not disappoint fans. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is one of those movie classics that belong in the library of every film buff, especially those that know and respect the genius of the filmmaker known as Orson Welles. Highly recommended.
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