In an Orson Welles movie, the influence of the director can be felt in every scene. Very few films can truly be said to be mistaken for a Welles picture; the adjective Wellesian was never so appropriately coined. That said, the singular influence most readily demonstrated while watching The Lady in Shanghai is must easier to pinpoint than usual. Oh sure, there is the usual overlapping dialogue and the majestic use of the wide-angel lens and the long tracking shots. Welles proves once again that pacing is far better controlled through composition than editing. The Lady from Shanghai is, after all, an Orson Welles film and so it should be expected to resemble the rest of his oeuvre. That noted, above and beyond any other of his films—with perhaps only Touch of Evil coming anywhere close—is the one element of the film which is most notably “Wellesian.”
The acting throughout is brittle with a nervous energy that sometimes often seems barely contained. Certain scenes—especially when the story reaches court, almost every scene set in Mexico and the infamous Hall of Mirrors sequence—often tread precariously close to the edge. The actors—with the notable exception of Mrs. Orson Welles at the time—Rita Hayworth—occasionally inch close enough to the point of hysteria to make it clear it that this is not a case of a “school of acting” or even melodramatic theatrical performance. What one is witnessing with this acting that deviates just enough from the rest of Welles’ films—except, as noted, perhaps Touch of Evil—is intentional. Well, maybe half-intentional and half not-so much.
The story goes that the very idea for the film was based on Welles needing a story really quick and coming up with a title off the top of his mind. That would explain the disconnect between the kind of movie one might expect from a film titled The Lady from Shanghai (there should at least be scenes taking place in Chinatown if not actually China;) and the film that was made. The fact is that the actor really were on edge and the brittle quality really is an extension of the directorial influence wielded by Welles. After all, he allegedly made up so much of the film as it was went along that many find its plot almost incomprehensible although if one reads the novel upon which the film was actually based, the two narratives are not that altogether divergent.
Nevertheless, it remains true that actors would arrive ready to shoot dialogue they had already memorized only to be greeted by entirely new scenes with entirely dialogue. His shooting style also involved tossing out the newly scripted lines in favor of on-the-spot improvisation. Sometimes entire scenes had to be reshoot for a variety of reasons. Then there was the fact that his original vision eschewed the traditional close-ups so favorite by producers and stars and so close-ups had to be shot that matched the composition and continuity of the original scenes; a difficult thing to do with scene shot on location. The collective effect was the creation of a mood and tone that led to the film’s most sharply drawn directorial influence
The Lady from Shanghai is a film that very often seems on the edge of sanity and reason precisely due to that brittle, near-hysterical mode of acting by nearly every character except the cold, icy blonde femme fatale at its dark, malevolent center.