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"A bright guilty world." - On The Lady From Shanghai

Hit Me With Your Best Shot S6.10
Mid Season Finale (See all the pics tonight at 11!)
The Lady From Shanghai (1948)
Directed by Orson Welles. Cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr.

Though we're usually tasked to watch the same film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, today for the Orson Welles Centennial, participants had their choice of three films. I chose The Lady From Shanghai (1948) largely because the only image I ever see for it online is Orson Welles seizing Rita Hayworth, both of them reflected by mirrors in the über famous "Crazy House" finale. It's one of those movie sequences you learn by osmosis just watching other movies (remember Woody Allen's take on it in Manhattan Murder Mystery?) even before you get around to this 1948 noir (Technicall IMDb says 1947 but it was released practically everywhere in 1948). Though the hall of mirrors contains roughly 50 shots that could justifiably be called "Best" it's their proximity and their dizzying accumulation of lies (all about to shatter) that really does it for me so I looked elsewhere.

The Lady From Shanghai is gorgeously uncluttered. It's as if only the basic tropes have room to exist: the femme fatale, the narrating dupe, the shadows, and the crimes. It's so self aware it even toasts its own genre halfway through...

Here's to crime!"

You might even call it minimalist despite the famously baroque visual finale. It was the fourth Orson Welles picture and the first to be ignored entirely by the Academy when it opened in the summer of 1948 but it won the important battle: standing the test of time.

The movie plays its hand immediately, informing you that Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) will be Michael O'Hara's (Orson Welles) undoing. But every time you look at her, which is often since Welles and Lawton Jr give Hayworth star vehicle closeups throughout, you hope it won't be true.  One very smart recurring visual motif is that Mrs Bannister is bathed in light more often than she's in shadow. She so clearly has her own key light that at the tail end of the movie's first sequence, when Welles jumps in a horse drawn carriage with her, their images seem artificially conjoined since he's so shadowy and she's so bright.

But this lighting motif is a lie, one you catch if you a) believe the narration and b) listen to the dialogue of the film's oiliest and most repulsive character who refers to the paradise around these rich sharks as a  "bright guilty world." One notable exception, the one I'd select as Best Shot if I could have two conjoined images to illustrate a point, is when Elsa and O'Hara meet in an quarium. This time they're both bathed in shadows though something is very different about the shots: when O'Hara stands next to the glass they're like harmless magnified fishies; when Elsa picks a spot to stand the marine life is far more disturbing, gasping for air. 

But for Best Shot I'm going minimal, and brightly lit, conveying the intoxication of Rita Hayworth. The shot below is breathtaking in its sensuality; Elsa gets the full glamour treatment, the glistening eyes and slightly parted mouth, the soft but ample lighting. But Welles doesn't rest on his co-star and lover's beauty alone. There's an impressive array of choreographed movement that keeps whiplashing the camera back to her, reclined, through lots of business with her three men and one cigarette. You're constantly aware of the relationships between the four principles. This is is not a typical triangulated affair or evil quartet but a circle with Elsa Bannister always at its center.

best shot

And since we're speaking of juxtapositions, if you pair this hypnotic sequence -- your eyes are getting heavier... You will do whatever Rita breathily implores! -- with an even more brightly lit but far less serene shot of her face in the climax, this star turn reveals itself as quite a bifurcated triumph; it's half fawning iconography (until the mask of her glamour finally drops) and half shifty performance. 

By all means if you haven't seen this movie -- or any of Orson Welles's masterpieces, do. 

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Reader Comments (8)

That is a great shot from that strange movie. Even though it would have been difficult to make Rita Hayworth look bad at her peak so much care was obviously put into making her absolutely breathtaking.

This shot reminds me again how the filmmakers of L.A. Confidential should have switched Kim Basinger's character to be a Rita Hayworth lookalike rather than Veronica Lake. I know they were following the book, and I love Veronica Lake, but Kim favors Rita much more.

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Welles allegedly didn't even want that shot in the film! The studio wanted more glamour shots of their best star. But I am glad it is there. All the extra shots of Hayworth are so enticing, make her seem so innocent. You almost forget she is a shark amount minnows.

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered Commentertom

tom -- wow that blows my mind because that shot plays so integral to that whole long sequence. as if the whole sequence is just waiting for it to happen and planning to build to it.

joel6 -- i was thinking of that during this! LA Confidential obviously looked to the Rita rather than Lake or rather Basinger maybe looked to her.

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yeah, the film was going to be made without any close-ups at all, if I recall correctly, and the studio made Welles put them in. I wonder if that explains why there are all those outlandishly gross close-ups of Glenn Anders sweating and grinning and squinting, sort of a passive-aggressive thing.

That being said, I gave a great deal of thought to making this exact same shot my pick.

May 6, 2015 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

I'd phrase it, "this relationship is like an arrow, with all prongs leading toward her point", but your metaphor does also work.

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Hayworth's final earth-shattering cry - "I don't want to die!" - still sends shivers down my spine.

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Nathaniel-I'm sure that the lack of resemblance bothers very few people aside from cinephiles but I notice it every time I watch the film, same with that actress they cast as Lana Turner.

The thing with the Rita/Veronica resemblance is that it would have been such a simple switch since the girl who ended up the victim was supposed to be a Rita Hayworth lookalike, she didn't resemble Rita either!, they could have hired a different actress and made her a Veronica lookalike and Kim more believably Rita. Looking at full body shots she's even more physically similar to Rita, Veronica was a dainty little thing while both Kim and Rita are more solidly built. It might not have been so glaring if they hadn't had Kim run that footage from This Gun for Hire in the movie.

I saw an interview with Kim at the time of the movie saying she did a great deal of research on Veronica and saw as many of her films as were available. One benefit of them staying with her is that the film brought Lake back into public awareness and a renewed appreciation of her.

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Tyler -- yeah, the ending is pretty spectacular. I tried to reign in my screencapping impulse this time for people who hadn't seen the movie but its so worth seeing because Welles movies are always so fascinating.

May 6, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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