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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Lady from Shanghai

Complex, suspenseful film noir with famous crazy-house-mirrors scene

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1948, b/w) "You've got to remember he came at entertainment more from an interest in lenses and light…. the [Mad] Stork had a total fetish for weird lenses and chiaroscuro." - Orin J. Incandenza on his filmmaker father James in David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest.

Adapting Sherwood King's novel The Man I Killed to the screen, Orson Welles directed and wrote the script for his complex, suspenseful film noir, taking for himself the role of Mike O'Hara - a world-weary sailor, who also narrates, speaking convincingly in an Irish brogue, aka "Black Irish" for having killed a man (of which he's not proud) in the Spanish civil war - featuring a famous climax in the "Magic Mirror Maze" of an amusement crazy house (to which Woody Allen paid homage in Manhattan Murder Mystery).

In the courtroom, called as a witness by the prosecution, Mike's defense counsel Arthur Bannister (Everett Stone), "the greatest living trial lawyer," follows with a cross-examination of himself (similar to Preston Tucker's self-defense in Tucker: The Man and His Dream).

But this is getting ahead of the story with Mike's making acquaintance with Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), rescuing her from the cabbie of her horse-drawn carriage and two accomplices in New York's Central Park (though she carried a pistol in her purse). Both have been to China; Elsa speaks Cantonese fluently, sharing Chinese epigrams such as "one who follows his nature keeps his original nature, in the end."

Innocent and stupid (i.e., a fool) Mike admits "I did not use my head" after meeting her; he hesitantly agrees to her husband ("Personally, I don't like a girlfriend to have a husband") Arthur's offer of becoming a member of the crew on his yacht Circe for a cruise through the Caribbean, after Elsa assures him: "I'll make it worth your while." Another admission from Mike: "I never make up my mind until it's over and done with."

Having married Arthur when her circumstances were compromised, Elsa, wanting a divorce from her older, crippled husband (who needs a pair of crutches to get about), comes on to the sailor. Arthur's law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) shows up on a motorboat to join the sailing party and witnesses Elsa and Mike kissing.

Talk turns to money - Arthur asks Mike, who has expressed regret for coming along (feeling shanghaied), if he can afford to just quit a good-paying job because he's "independently wealthy," to which Mike answers, "Independent … I've always found it very sanitary to be broke" - and murder when George asks him if he could kill again. Another person on the yacht, Sidney Broome (Ted De Corsia), ostensibly Arthur's butler and steward, is actually the detective employed on divorce cases. These people remind Mike of an occasion where a single shark's wound attracted other sharks to feast upon one another, "mad with their own blood."

In Acapulco George offers to pay Mike $5,000: "All you have to do is kill somebody … Me." Back in San Francisco, George gives Mike a letter under his name of a confession to murder: "Suicide is against the law. We're not going to break the law. This is going to be a murder. It's going to be legal."

Revealing his plan to disappear and take on a new identity elsewhere, George, who would be leaving Arthur with money from their partnership's life insurance, then explains to Mike (now giving serious consideration that Elsa might leave Arthur for him if he had a wad of dough) that according to California law there's no homicide without a body (the tides of Sausalito Bay would carry a corpse far out to sea) and thus no murderer, though the confession would provide sufficient proof of death.

At the aquarium Mike tells Elsa of the scheme - the sea creatures in the background infuse the scene with an eerie atmosphere, recalling Mike's tale about the sharks - to which she warns him: "It's one of those famous Bannister tricks." A group of school children giggle when they come upon the couple in an embrace. "Everybody's somebody's fool."

(Another version of The Lady from Shanghai is in the works: in 2010 Kar Wai Wong will direct the movie from his own screenplay.)

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)