The Lady from Shanghai

(Orson Welles, USA, 1948)


Orson Welles was shot from the centre of the Hollywood studio system not long after Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Once in orbit among the vagaries of international co-production, TV work and B movie quickies, his films became a unique and compelling patchwork of styles, places and plots.

The Lady from Shanghai is misremembered by some as a more classical film than it actually is. Certainly, Welles was working in Hollywood with a glamorous star (Rita Hayworth), the conventions of the film noir thriller genre, and some marvellous studio technology. Beyond its archetypal scenario of fallen hero (Welles) versus femme fatale (Hayworth) and its well known mirror-maze shootout, however, this is one strange fish of a movie.

Welles is best approached as a life-long experimental filmmaker. His taste for certain techniques – rapid editing, cluttered sets, extensive vocal post-synchronization – heighten the odd, dreamlike ambience while often sabotaging strict plot coherence. Welles' approach to screen characterisation is equally game. He plays his own generic part as if it were Charles Foster Kane, inscrutably a freedom fighter and novelist one moment, a bum or a cad the next.

One aspect of Welles' films that has received little attention from critics to date is their pronounced multiculturalism. Welles was a true cosmopolitan and an obsessive traveller, and his movies offer fascinating glimpses into many nations, whether on location or fancifully recreated in a studio. Although clearly most attracted to the dark side of the Orient and the "bright, guilty world" of Latin America, Welles even has a compliment for us in The Lady From Shanghai: "The nicest jails are in Australia."

MORE Welles: Touch of Evil, F for Fake

© Adrian Martin September 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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