The Lady from Shanghai may be the only film noir in made expressly in order to pay back a personal loan. That loan was made to Orson Welles by Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn under terms in which payback would include a movie directed by Welles. The Welles that felt compelled to agree to any terms offered by Cohn as a result of an artistic emergency leaving him in dire need of money almost on the spot is also the Welles so intensely aware of his talent that the actual content and source of the film hardly mattered; whatever the source might be it would likely bear little resemblance to the final product he would ultimately deliver. Such an intuitive awareness of his own character and the likely outcome of the film he had just promise to direct for Cohn also serves to make the Orson Welles in dire need of a loan the same Orson Welles whose creative vision would once again be wrestled out of his hands and left to the fact of significantly less creative individuals.
The source which Welles was only very casually familiar with turned out to be a novel titled If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King. Perhaps surprisingly to those already familiar with how Orson Welles enjoyed tweaking the source material for his movies to make them infinitely more cinematic, there are actually very few major divergences in the basic narrative that both novel and film follow. The most important changes made in the process of adaptation by Welles was tightening that flow by constraining into just a few scenes on film or eliminating altogether what are major passages in the book describing a trial and subsequent prison experiences. And then there’s the pumped-up prose in the dialogue that is definitively Wellesian. Oh, and of course there are the visual flourishes which have gone on to become among the most memorable scenes in film history. But those changes are really more in the telling of the story than the story itself which, it is worth repeating, remains markedly similar in both tellings.
If the hall of mirrors sequence is the most justly famous element associated with The Lady from Shanghai, then the physical appearance of its female lead, Rita Hayworth, certainly must qualify as the most infamous element associated with the film. Hayworth was literally the fiery companion to Betty Grable’s icily cool blonde among the most popular pin-up girls from the World War II era. Hayworth’s long, flaming red hair was every bit as essential to her image as the peekaboo curls of Veronica Lake. Which is why Orson’s decision to have his star cut off her locks and dye what remained behind platinum blonde came as such a shock. The motivation behind this decision was only muddle further as the result of Hayworth being not only the star of his latest movie but his wife as well. A wife with whom he was currently having marital difficulties so substantial the divorce would become final just six after The Lady from Shanghai hit theaters.
The shock of America’s favorite vivacious redhead treating men with an unfamiliar iciness was nothing compared to seeing the final product intended to bring their financial deal to a settlement for Harry Cohn. The vision that Welles had for the film was to make it an exercise in Brechtian filmmaking in which an emotional distance purposely exists between the audience and the narrative so that they are forced to analyze it from a more critical level of engagement. The results of applying Brechtian theory to creative practice can very enormously depending on a number of variables. At its worst, a Brechtian approach ends up having the effect of making word “feel” like an unreal performance and such a style is the exact polar opposite of Hollywood’s obsession with realism. In the hands of a artist fully capable of understanding Brecht’s theories and transmitting it to his actors, The Lady from Shanghai never has that discomforting Mamet-esque lag in the pacing of scenes with dialogue that not only puts creates enough space to ensure no emotional connection, but feels so “off” that it can verge on the unintentionally hilarious. No, in fact, The Lady From Shanghai—even in the edited version that veers from Orson’s vision—manages to maintain an emotional distance without resulting in utterly alienation from the audience. That may be the film’s greatest accomplishment, but Harry Cohn certainly did not think so.
The story behind the story of The Lady from Shanghai plays out like one of those recurring nightmares you hear people say they have. Nor for the first time and not for the last, a film that was uniquely Orson Welles in its vision and production was deemed unworthy by the money men and handed over to studio hacks in the editing room until it was returned in a form suitable for spending advertising on.