Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) had lived a colourful life up until the point he met Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), having fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and ended up in more jails around the world than most. Tonight in New York City he attempted to introduce himself to Elsa as she rode in a horse-drawn cab in Central Park, although when she revealed she had a husband he was less interested. However, shortly after a group of men dragged her into the bushes to rape her and Michael leapt to her defence, beating them up and saving her - or was he being drawn into a web of intrigue?
Orson Welles' cult film noir had, as with most of the films with him at the helm, much in the manner of production troubles and was initially conjured up practically on the spot when he needed money for his Mercury Theater. In a deal with Columbia studios boss Harry Cohn he would craft a vehicle for his then-wife Rita Hayworth, but Welles had pretentions that Cohn did not take kindly to and, perhaps inevitably, the film was taken out of its creator's hands and extensively re-edited. Yet again Welles was stung by the movie business, and what was left took some time to catch on.
But catch on it did, and is now considered one of Welles' most intriguing pictures, if only for what can be read into the central relationship between Mike and Elsa and how it may or may not parallel the real life marriage of Welles and Hayworth. That marriage was over by the time the film was belatedly released to little interest, and some would have it that this was because of Hayworth's radical change of image, that is, a short blonde hairdo instead of the flowing auburn locks she had become famous for. But really, she was still a beautiful woman - were audiences actually that fickle?
It could be the real reason the film did not take off in popularity was that there's a curious absence of romantic spark, of true passion, between the two stars. Sure, Hayworth is playing an ice cool character, but she gives the impression of being ice right down to her heart as well. Then there's the world weary Mike, essayed by Welles with a thick "Oirish" brogue: when you hear his opening narration you think, is he going to put on that phoney accent throughout the film? And that's precisely what he does, harming credibility somewhat.
Accompany that with a plotline that doesn't make much sense on close examination, where motives seem arbritrary at best, and The Lady from Shanghai should be a disaster. And yet, it weaves a cynical allure, beautifully photographed, and with a neat line in off kilter humour. Mike is lured onto the yacht of Elsa and her rich lawyer husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) to work for them, but is he being set up? Is Elsa leading him on? And what of Bannister's partner in law, Grisby (Glenn Anders), what does he have up his sleeve? This may be a muddle, but sequences stand out as hailing from a director at the top of his game, such as the courtroom scenes which wouldn't give anyone faith in the justice system, or the climactic shoot-out in the hall of mirrors. So not a curate's egg exactly, as the film is consistently enjoyable, but once more it leaves you wondering what the original, untampered version of Welles' vision might have been like. Music by Heinz Roemheld.