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Why The Lady From Shanghai continues to fry my brain
After posting his review of the Indicator Blu-ray of Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai, Slarek discovered that rewatching the film suggests a whole new way of reading key aspects of its complex plot. Or does it?
21 May 2017

A few days ago, I posted a review for the Indicator Blu-ray of Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai. It's a truism of just about every review we write that there's always something more to say about the film or disc in question. As an editor, Camus has reminded me more than once that no film is never finished but is instead abandoned when the constraints of budget or studio pressure or a looming release date force the filmmakers to finally sign off on the project. The same is true of reviews, where fast approaching (or too often in my case, recently passed) release dates and the varying pressures of work and everyday life force us to wind up a review and move onto the next one. In the case of The Lady from Shanghai, I could have rattled on for a couple of thousand words more, but did feel I'd covered all the key points before posting. I'd first seen the film many years ago and it genuinely was a joy to revisit, so much so that after posting the review I decided to watch it again, and found myself picking up on things whose potential importance and implication simply had not registered before. And thus this blog piece.

Essentially, this is an expansion on my original review, an extra feature if you will. It is, however, aimed squarely at those who have seen and know the film, many of whom will doubtless have already asked the same questions and made their own assumptions about what I'm about to propose. Thus if you've not seen the film I would definitely give the rest of this blog a miss until you have. I'm serious, here. Not only am I going to reveal a major plot twist, but I'm also going to discuss a number of clues dropped on the way, including an early one that I'll wager only those with eidetic memories will be able to connect to later events on a single viewing alone. You have been warned.

Elsa rides with O'Hara

Right, as those who have seen the film will be aware, leading man Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) becomes enraptured by the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) when he spots her riding the streets of San Francisco at night in an open-front horse-drawn carriage. He flirts briefly with her and a short while later comes to her aid when she is assaulted by three adult male ruffians. The two are clearly attracted to each other, and when she collects her car, Elsa offers O'Hara to a position working on her boat. He declines, but the next day is approached by her husband, notorious criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and is offered the job again. Against his better judgement, he is persuaded by a pleading Elsa to take the job. Once they get under way, things complicate further. Bannister is made aware of a threat on his life by Sidney Broome (Ted De Corsia), a detective in his employ, and O'Hara is offered $5,000 by Banister's partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders) to confess to killing him so that he can disappear under the pretence of being dead. With no body as evidence, Grisby assures O'Hara that his confession will not be enough to convict him, but things do not go to plan. Grisby murders Broome, who was trying to blackmail him, and then heads off to kill Bannister, but unexpectedly it's he who ends up dead. With a confession in his pocket and Bannister's body on a gurney, O'Hara is arrested and put on trial for his life with the vengeful Bannister as his legal counsel. In the end it is revealed that Elsa had made a deal with Grisby to kill her husband for a half-share of a sizeable insurance payoff, but after he impulsively shoots the blackmailing Broome, Elsa kills him instead, a murder for which O'Hara is already in the frame.

OK, so the question that occurred to me on my third viewing was this: at what point did Elsa and Grisby select O'Hara to be the patsy for their crime? I'm asking because the answer I came up with on my third viewing of the film is considerably different to the one I'd originally gone with.

On the first viewing I was convinced by the following plot points:

  • O'Hara sees Elsa riding in a carriage by chance and can't resist the urge to flirt with her. She is initially uncertain about this forward stranger but soon finds herself charmed by him.
  • A short while later, O'Hara sees Elsa's purse lying in the road and rescues her from an assault being carried out by three unidentified men. This is also a chance event. She is grateful and allows him to take control of the carriage and drive her back to her car. On the way there, they discover that O'Hara is familiar with the city from which Elsa hails, the titular Shanghai. The two start to really hit it off.
  • Elsa has taking a strong liking to O'Hara, and having collected her car she makes an off-the-cuff offer to O'Hara of a job on her husband's yacht, which he declines. It seems clear her intention is to keep him close so that a relationship might develop between the two. Looking back, it occurred to me that as O'Hara had by then revealed that he had once killed a man, and the idea of using him as a scapegoat for her own murder plans might just have struck Elsa at this point.
  • On learning that O'Hara has joined the crew and that he once killed a man, Grisby leaps at the chance to recruit him for a plan he has likely been concocting for some time to fake his own death.
  • When Grisby shoots Broome, Elsa decides he has lost control and kills him in retaliation, a murder for which O'Hara has already been perfectly framed.

Little changed on my second viewing, which took place a good many years after the first and I was thus reacquainting myself with characters and plot points that I only vaguely remembered. But on that third viewing, everything changed for me. Coming so quickly after the second, elements that meant little the first time around hit me square in the face and forced me to rethink assumptions I'd made about how the plot unfolds. The trigger for this rethink occurs immediately after O'Hara declines Elsa's job offer and she drives away. O'Hara walks forward and watches her as she leaves, and as he does so a man appears from behind a pillar and walks alongside and eventually past him, exchanging a couple of words with another man who responds by heading off in the opposite direction. The first time(s) around I took this as an engaging bit of scene texturing on Welles' part. But see it again and you realise that this is no random encounter. The man who appears from behind the pillar is none other than Sidney Broome, the detective hired by Bannister to keep an eye on his wife. And the man he says hello to is none other than George Grisby, who on being recognised by Broome makes a hasty retreat.

Bannister, Grisby and O'Hara

Now, it's quite likely that Broome was tailing Elsa on her husband's instructions, though if so where was he when she was being assaulted? And what was Grisby doing at the parking garage? Adding a further layer of intrigue is that on individually first meeting both men, O'Hara is sure he's seen them before. He recognises Broome from the garage the previous evening (although Broome claims that it was someone else), but he seems to think he previously saw Grisby in New York, an encounter that would have taken place outside the timeframe of the film. This got me thinking about the role that chance had played in Elsa and Grisby's scheme and wondering if they would have moved forward with it at all had O'Hara not handily dropped into their laps. And that garage encounter kept niggling at me, prompting a re-evaluation of what I had seen and what it might imply.

What if, I wondered, the chance meeting between O'Hara and Elsa wasn't a chance meeting at all? What if Elsa and Grisby had been looking for a potential patsy for some time and had set the this encounter up to entice O'Hara into joining them on the boat? Was that why O'Hara remembered seeing Grisby in New York? Was he there looking into O'Hara's background to confirm him as a potential candidate for their scheme? This would mean that O'Hara was being watched that evening and that Elsa's carriage ride was steered towards where she knew he was walking. This would at least answer the question of why Elsa would park her car and go on a horse-drawn carriage ride alone at night through the darkened streets of San Francisco, and why Grisby was standing outside the car park keeping an eye on events. It would also mean that the men who attacked Elsa were likely stooges paid to take a few punches from O'Hara and lose a three-on-one fight that they should by rights have won. Wow, what a pair of schemers.

Yet having settled on this interpretation of events, I then remembered that Elsa's original target was her husband Arthur, and that the incriminating evidence against O'Hara was only incriminating at all because Grisby killed Broome and Elsa unexpectedly turned on him. But before he cops a bullet, Broome reveals that he is aware that Grisby is looking to frame O'Hara for Bannister's murder. Quite how this would work puzzled me at first, but if we take Grisby's intention to disappear and play dead and have Michael take the blame at face value then the authorities may not have a body to convict him of this particular crime, but if Bannister is found dead from a gunshot wound and Michael has confessed to shooting his partner, it seems likely that he'd be prosecuted for a double murder and that the authorities would more readily accept that Grisby was dead, even without a body to confirm it.

Oh man, this is the sort of journey a film like The Lady from Shanghai can send you on if you watch it a few times and start pondering on the complexities of its plot. In my original review, I was a tad dismissive of studio head Harry Cohn's offer to pay $1,000 to anyone who could explain the plot to him, but further viewings of film had me questioning my conviction that I'd unravelled the mystery the first time around. Maybe I'm chasing the ghosts of my own invention, but it's a testament to Welles' wonderfully complex and richly layered film that even after all that, I'm still re-examining every word and action and wondering how my interpretation might change again on subsequent viewings.


You can read my review of the Indicator Blu-ray of The Lady from Shanhai here.