Film Noir – The Lady From Shanghai

Lady from Shanghai

‘Give my love to the sunrise.’

Rita Hayworth says this to a distant Orson Welles in the final scene of The Lady From Shanghai. Welles understood. His career in Hollywood was sabotaged by men who wanted status and power. Unable to listen to his warning, many wasted their lives on ambition.

‘There are no happy endings,’ said Welles.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles were the 40s equivalent of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Welles was an intellectual with a gift for popularity and he married a popular sex symbol. Supposedly, Welles had not intended casting himself as Mike O’Hara, the innocent victim who is seduced by devious but desperate Elsa. But the impact of celebrity is not ignored in the film. The island escape is mentioned by more than one character, something that will free these indulged schemers from the glare that celebrity brings.

When Elsa appears in court, a woman spectator says, ‘I just want to look at her.’

She could be referring to Rita Hayworth. We all want to see what she looks like in a formal suit. Fabulous as it happens.

Welles is miscast as Mike O’Hara. He is too sophisticated to be an innocent and, although Hayworth was married to Welles, on celluloid the relationship does not convince. Welles, like Elvis in the seventies, is too flabby.

Although born too late for the film, early Elvis would have been good as Mike, naive strength and youth tarnished by a sophisticated but corrupted woman. O’Hara is not defeated at the end of the film. He will not enjoy his wealth defying romance, like he had previously, but continuing exclusion remains his destiny.

Youth is important in The Lady From Shanghai. Welles understands both sides of the nihillistic argument. O’Hara is not dependant on wealth like the lawyers, Bannister and Grisby, but he is young. Bannister believes wealth is our immunity against age. Romance, either personal or sexual, cannot survive ageing. The generation that attempted personal freedom in Buddhist India now worries about funding health care provision for the old.

Film noir was shaped by male paranoia during and after the Second World War. Women had left households to do wartime jobs and, because the men had disappeared from their lives, each woman had a suspicious past. This fear of the past of the female is emphasised in the film by Elsa having a secret history in Shanghai. We assume that she was a prostitute but when the audience hears Elsa talking in Chinese to the villains of Chinatown it suspects that she really is evil. Welles exploits our racism. But noir is also concerned with male guilt, the knowledge that if there is a choice between admirable and virtuous woman or the dumb but sexually potent then men usually choose the latter.

After her death, Arthur Miller discussed his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

‘I was driven by lust,’ he said.

Guilt and lust not only undermined Welles and Miller, their appetites damaged two vulnerable women and probably more.


Howard Jackson has written 3 books that have been published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Nightmares Ahead will be published in 2015.

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The final scene from The Lady from Shanghai: