Maybe it’s the stage Irish sentimentality. Or maybe it’s the non sequiturs. But it’s hard to think of a more heartbroken noir mark than Michael O’Hara, the hero and stooge at the centre of this 1947 classic.
Orson Welles, playing a character designated as Black Irish by all who happen upon him, doesn't quite master the accent. But he sure can talk the talk as he "dawdles around the West Indies" and takes on "some ruffian fellas".
It's this latter act which endears him to blonde bombshell Elsa (Rita Hayworth), who inspires Michael, an able seaman, to sign up for a voyage to the Panama Canal with the object of his affection and her husband, the disabled criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). They're joined on the yacht by Bannister's partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders) who has a proposal for Michael.
In Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, Tilda Swinton's "Blonde" complains that The Lady in Shanghai makes no sense. She's not far wrong. Welles' semi-parodic, angular, expressionist approach to Sherwood King's pulpy source novel (If I Die Before I Wake) is simultaneously brilliant and bats.
Typically for Welles, the production was a fraught affair. Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn had no time for the wunderkind's Brechtian stratagems and was enraged that his fabulous studio redhead was cropped and bleached for the titular role. There's at least an hour missing from the original cut and more footage was lost during an extended "weekend" on Errol Flynn's yacht.
Surviving photographs provide illustrations of lavish and elaborate sets that wound up on the cutting room floor. At least three cinematographers (including Charles Lawton Jr and Rudolph Mate) worked on the film. One can only imagine that the reshoots, which took place just after Welles and Hayworth's marriage collapsed, were less than fun.
For all its oddness, there are moments of brilliance that surviving the cull. The famous final sequence in a house of mirrors has been repeated and restaged often enough to pass as a trope. And the gorgeous aquarium sequence of Welles and Hayworth strolling among sharks is the Best Metaphor Ever.