Almost from the first scene of The Lady from Shanghai, you know it isn’t going to end well for at least a few of the protagonists. Why? Because one thing that the damnable Hays Code insisted on was that no one involved in crime or amorality was allowed a happy ending.
It is a classic, apparently, but it could have been so much better.
Directed by Orson Welles (who also played the lead role) and starring Rita Hayworth, it should have been better.
But it wasn’t. It’s a disjointed noir story about unfaithful wives after money, as in so many other noir films (Double Indemnity springs to mind immediately), except here, the narrative is full of either plot holes or intentional ambiguity. No one acts the way they probably should, although the debauched atmosphere does go a way to explaining it all.
In its day, the fault for the movie being a flop was laid at Welles’ feet, and I suppose he does shoulder a good part of it, but as I said, I was immediately certain that the thing would end badly for most of the cast because I knew the rules you had to play by in the Hays Code era.
If you wanted to have a happy ending for an ambiguous hero, you essentially had to move to France and film there. Likewise if your heroine crossed a few too many lines.
So this one is a mixed bag, likely only of real interest to Orson Welles’ completists and to people who really, really love the shootout in the mirror maze (admittedly, that part was pretty cool).
Maybe put this one on the back burner until you’ve watched more pressing films.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book, Love and Death is a series of intertwined stories that delve deeply into what it means to be alive and what love means in different scenarios. You can buy it here.