Orson Welles may have given Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn heartburn when he cut and bleached Rita Hayworth’s hair. (Out with the trademark russet locks, in with the blond.)
But he made a classic movie. We’re talking, of course, about 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai, Hayworth’s final outing under her old Columbia contract.
She accepted the role of an ic-cold film noir femme fatale (Ida Lupino was the original choice for the part) in large measure for financial reasons. She and Welles were ending their five year marriage, and Rita figured that since Welles would be paid a percentage of the film’s gross, their daughter Rebecca would benefit. (As it turned out, the film was a box office bust.)
As for Welles, The Lady From Shanghai was in effect his final outing; he was finished in Hollywood. Columnist Louella Parsons, who admired Rita but loathed Orson, gloated in print to her many readers that Welles was washed up in Hollywood AND washed up with Hayworth. Thus, she theorized, the drastic altering of Hayworth’s locks symbolized Welles’ frustration and vengeance on Hollywood.
As film noir scholar Eddie Muller notes, production of the film became Hollywood legend.” On the first take, an assistant cameraman keeled over from a heart attack…. And as for his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Welles treated her like fallout from the Bikini test.
Welles, who produced, costarred in, directed and wrote the screenplay, portrays a naive Irish seaman, who narrates the convoluted tale in an transparently fake accent. Hayworth is a former saloon singer with a heart of lead, toughened by an international circuit she’s circumnavigated too many times. Her paraplegic husband (Everett Sloane) is a defense lawyer renowned for never losing the high profile cases he handles.
The seaman is seduced by the lawyer’s wife. The lawyer’s sidekick (Glenn Anders) hatches a plot to murder, and frame the seaman. The wife guns down an underling (Ted DeCorsia) who knows too much. She at the film’s finale is finally unmasked as the ruthless, cold blooded killer of the piece in a fatal shootout with her husband — I’m aiming at you, lover!
All this plays out before the by-now familiar set in an amusement park’s Hall of Mirrors. The scene is beautifully staged, one of Welles most evocative big screen triumphs. At the movie’s conclusion, the sailor leaves the Hayworth character bleeding on the floor screaming, I don’t want to die. He departs, she does.
Like much of Welles work, The Lady of Shanghai, gets better with pretty much each viewing. The supporting cast — particularly Sloane, Anders (who comes across as more than a little creepy) and DeCorsia — is superb. Rita looks gorgeous throughout, easily overcoming a wooden performance.
The sole clunker is Welles himself as the sailor. Out-of-shape and more than a little clumsy onscreen (check him out in the fight scenes), Welles is a dud as the femme fatale magnet that the sailor is supposed to present. The yacht used in the picture (The Lady From Shanghai was partially shot on location in Acapulco) was leased from Errol Flynn.
Now had he been cast in the part Welles had badly bungled….