Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn got this movie from Orson Welles — he promised to write, produce and direct it for just $55,000 — because he helped him pay for Welles’ production of Around the World, a musical stage adaptation of the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
In Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, it’s revealed that Castle had purchased the rights to the novel f I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King. He asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, with Castle hoping to direct the film, leading to him being disappointed when he was Welles’ assistant director for this film.
When Cohn got the cut from Welles, he was unhappy. Welles wanted the filmto look like a documentary and shot it on location in Acapulco, Pie de la Cuesta, Sausalito and San Francisco. This was an innovation at the time but Cohn liked the look of studio lighting. Cohn ordered extensive editing — which took a year to finish and editor Viola Lawrence cut an hour from Welles’ rough cut — and reshoots. The incredible ending of this movie in the amusement park was twenty minutes long and was cut to just three minutes with all of the footage on the cutting room floor lost forever.
Cohn was also enraged with one major cut: Welles had his estranged wife RIta Hayworth cut her trademark long red hair for short blonde hair. Cohn screamed at her, “He’s ruined you — he cut your hair off!”
Reviews at the time said that this was “wordy and full of holes” and “thoroughly confused and baffling.” Today, we see the film quite differently and the closing hall of mirrors scene is a classic in all of cinema and has been reused several times, most strikingly in Enter the Dragon and The Man With the Golden Gun.
Welles, who directed and wrote this with Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle, plays sailor Michael O’Hara, a man trapped in the machinations between disabled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and his alluring wife Elsa (Hayworth). As he works on Bannister’s ship, he’s asked by his boss’ partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) to help him fake his death. He can use the money to run away with Elsa, but at this point, even through he’s not thinking with the correct brain, he should know that this plot seems too murky to go down.
Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia), the private investigator who has been following Elsa for her husband, learns that Girsby plans to kill his boss and frame Michael. Grisby shoots Broome and leaves the scene of the crime and heading off to another where he plans on killing Bannister, who is wise to the crime and kills the man, then follows through on blaming Michael.
Bannister acts as Michael’s attorney and soon learns that his suspicions were correct and that he’s in love with Elsa. That said there are so many twists to come, including hiding in a Chinese theater, before the final shots inside the Magic Mirror Maze.
Most of this was shot on Errol Flynn’s ship Zaca, which he was captaining between takes. You can see him show up in some background scenes and when a cameraman literally dropped dead durrng a take, he tried to stuff the body in a bag and bury it at sea. There was also an attack of millions of insects at one point with one stinging Welles directly in the eye and Hayworth collapsed from the heat in Mexico more than once.
What emerges is a movie worth watching and I love that with blu rays, I have this close by and ready to view at any time.
The Kino Lorber blu ray release of The Lady from Shanghai has three different audio commentary tracks, one by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, another by novelist and critic Tim Lucas, and a third by Peter Bogdanovich. There’s also an interview with Bogdanovich, comments by film noir historian Eddie Muller and a trailer. You can get it from Kino Lorber.