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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Rita Hayworth who plays Elsa Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai looks like the Rita Hayworth in any other movie she made. Hayworth became one of the definitive pin-up girls of World War II and one of the most legendary of Hollywood’s ceaseless parade of sex symbols in large part because of her long, flaming red hair. Her tempestuously erotic screen presence is utterly at odds with the cold, calculating icy blond femme fatale of Elsa Bannister. That shocking left turn to her carefully cultivated image was also coldly calculated by director Orson Welles who just so happened to also be the husband of Rita Hayworth at the time of production.
Michael O’Hara is quite clearly from somewhere in Ireland. Orson Welles was not. As a result, watching The Lady from Shanghai is a bit jarring because while the character still speaks in those immediately recognizable deep-throated tones that made Welles one of the most respectable-sounding commercial spokesmen in history, there is still something not quite Orson-esque about Michael O’Hara. O’Hara’s alien status is not limited merely to being an Irishman among Americans; he is also an innocent among a nest of vipers. One could make a strong case that had Welles not elected to differentiate Michael from the truly repulsive cast of characters into whose oily story he manages to drop by virtue of that accent, the stentorian elocution that was his normal delivery might have made it more difficult for audiences to view him as an innocent among the guilty.
Everett Sloane was a member of Orson Welles’ regular troupe of Mercury Theater actors whose first three movies were all directed by Welles. Even had that not been the case, one certainly hopes that he would have been cast as Arthur Bannister because it is almost impossible to imagine casting any other actor of the time who would have been less likely to have attracted Rita Hayworth. Although less than a decade older than Hayworth, Sloane easily seems to be thirty years her senior in The Lady from Shanghai which only adds to the dramatic tension of Elsa Bannister’s flirtation with Michael O’Hara. Few examples of more perfect casting could possibly be found among all the other movies released in 1947.
If Everett Sloane is the perfect casting for Elsa’s old, impotent husband the Glenn Anders is nearly as perfect for the part of the dullard she enlists to help her kill her husband by acting as though a woman that looked like her would ever give a guy who looked like him a second thought. When you see the sweaty, wild-eyed Anders lustfully leering at Hayworth’s Elsa in the film, you know in an instant he is the real film noir sap here because it’s clear a guy that looked like him would do anything that a girl who looked like her asked. And unlike Welles’ Michael, you never for a second question why George Grisby isn’t smart enough to catch on the cold calculations whirring inside Elsa’s brain like a computer.
Erskine Sanford is another of the Mercury Theater regulars who shows up in most of the really good early directorial efforts by Orson Welles. Welles proves once again that he is unerring in his talent for picking the right actor for the right role. Sanford’s Judge is not a major player in this noir drama, but his capacity for presiding over a high-profile trial in the courtroom is vital to how the plot later unfolds. Sandford is spot 0n as a Clarence Thomas-esque judge who does not even seem to be aware he is a judge, much less exhibits any intellectual capacity capable of convincing anyone he is the man in charge of the courtroom.
Ted De Corsia
Poor Sidney Broome. He seems to be the only person within the universe of the movie to fully understand the depths to which all humans can go. Well, almost all humans. Even Broome is taken in a little bit. To play this rather complicated version of the standard 1940s PI, Welles went outside his usual troupe of players to hire a complete newbie. The Lady from Shanghai was Ted De Corsia’s first film and this was an exceptionally wise movie by Welles because his character is presented as something of a mystery. The audience is not supposed to be able get a handle on just where he fits within the purview of the incredibly ambiguous morality represented by the other characters. As such, Welles need to find not just an actor who brought no resonance from previous portrayals with him, but also a big brawny villainous-looking actor who turns out to be entirely on the right side of morality.
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