Orson Welles needed money to launch a stage version of ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ Columbia boss, Harry Cohn wanted Welles to do a picture for him. Both got what they wanted and then some with The Lady from Shanghai (1947) a moody film noir based on the novel ‘If I Die Before I Wake.’
Originally intended as a B-movie, the hiring of Rita Hayworth for the lead made the film an A-list super production that Welles deplored almost from the moment he agreed to make it. Hayworth, then Welles’ wife, had hoped to rekindle a spark in their waning marriage, but to no avail. Welles had Hayworth’s trademark red tresses dyed blonde and cut short without Cohn’s consent. These alterations to Columbia’s number one glamour girl were ill received but greatly enhanced Hayworth’s performance.
In the film, Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a sailor who finds himself the unwilling accomplice to a murder after he meets Elsa Bannister – the lady from Shanghai (Hayworth). Elsa’s husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane) is a sadistic cripple who delights in taunting Elsa and Michael into a lover’s triangle.
Bannister’s attorney, the laughing sadist George Grisby (Glenn Anders) wants Michael to kill him. Oh yeah…it only gets more bizarre from here. Welles use of locations in Acapulco and California greatly enhanced the stark sinister realism of this film. A sense of imminent foreboding stalks its characters at every turn, heralding the climactic unhappy ending in a funhouse where only terror reigns.
However, when Welles showed his rough cut to Harry Cohn, the old mogul was outraged. He banished Welles from the studio and hacked a two and a half hour masterpiece down to 96 min. of incoherent fun. Unceremoniously dumped on the market, the film failed to earn back its money, though in Europe it achieved the status of a cult classic. Despite these excisions, Welles vision continues to flicker in fits and sparks, and the story, no less appealing than most film noirs of its vintage is today regarded as a high point in the genre.
Sony Home Entertainment’s DVD has been impeccably mastered. Under the old ‘Columbia Classics’ banner, the B&W picture elements exhibit an astoundingly pristine quality with exceptionally fine details evident throughout. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are near pristine. Occasionally age related artifacts appear but these do not distract. Matte and process shots are well integrated and concealed. The audio is mono but nicely represented. Extras include a very thorough audio commentary from director and Welles biographer, Peter Bogdanovich as well as a featurette with Bogdanovich that provides even more back story to the film’s ill fated production shoot. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)