Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1948) gets off to a rocky start and never fully recovers, although it possesses the director’s trademark cinematic flourishes and a nicely essayed noir cynicism. It stars Welles as Irish ne’er-do-well Michael O’Hara, a strapping, skeptical veteran of the Spanish Civil War. By chance, O’Hara rescues wealthy damsel in distress Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from ruffians in Central Park. Not soon thereafter, Elsa’s husband Arthur (Everett Sloane), an unscrupulous defense attorney, hires Michael as a deckhand for a pleasure cruise from New York to San Francisco, via the Panama Canal. O’Hara’s suspicion of Arthur, and later his law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders), is overwhelmed by his attraction to Elsa, and he takes the job. Sure enough, though, even as sparks fly with Elsa, his fateful decision thrusts him into the sleazy lawyers’ web of treachery.
Although intermittent narration disrupts its spell on occasion, especially during the clunky opening sequence, The Lady of Shanghai is mostly an attractive and engaging film noir. The plot is slow to develop, however, and the threads take their time coming together. When they do, during its iconic hall-of-mirrors shoot-out, the film’s overall shape finally comes more sharply into focus. I left it feeling like I’d just watched a good film that hadn’t realized its potential for greatness, but overall it’s still a pretty decent example of its type.