The narration of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai is ambiguous. One has no way of knowing the extent to which one should believe Michael O’Hara (Welles, excellent).
I set Welles’s film noir in two contexts: “waterfront agitator” O’Hara’s participation in the Spanish Civil War; Welles’s marriage to Rita Hayworth, which was already beginning to end when Welles embarked on this project starring her. O’Hara’s Leftist sympathies suggest his likely profound disillusionment, and indeed O’Hara at no time seems to fit into the current world. With its visual distortions, the celebrated fun-house sequence, including the Hall of Mirrors where Elsa and her husband try shooting one another dead amidst their countless deceptive images, may ultimately imply O’Hara’s cockeyed view of reality. It is he, after all, who falls down the winding chute into the fun-house. It is even possible that the entire narrative consists of a madman’s ravings. Welles, though, buys into the theme of human sharks in such a blood-frenzy they end up eating themselves.
Hayworth, of course, was the forties’ most radiant star. For her role as Elsa, Welles cut her gorgeous locks and made them blonde, which, given her dark complexion, works as strangely for her as it does for Olivier’s Hamlet. Let’s say it suits Elsa’s ambiguity, as does the fact that she is a tsarist Russian descendant who speaks fluent (and thinks of love in) Chinese. There’s little hope of fathoming this predatory female, but, truth to tell, it has always seemed to me that O’Hara all but invites her to ensnare him in her deadly intrigue. Perhaps he seeks confirmation of how unlucky he is or how rotten the world is.
The end of the Welleses’ marriage, which it symbolically incorporates, accounts for the film’s unexpected poignancy.
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