It is easy to think that, buried within the remains of every Orson Welles film, is the glimmer of a great film, and should studio butchering have not taken place, we would have that now.
The Lady from Shanghai is a film, reportedly, that had an hour removed from it, and had an awful, repetitive score threaded throughout it, among other travesties visited upon it. It's a familiar history for Welles' films after Citizen Kane, though, from memory, The Trial is also a film that he had full control over. I can't be bothered flipping through the books to find out if this is true or not, but a part of me also seems to think that some of the other films he made in Europe were to his vision, though albietly they were a vision limited by costs, time, and Welles' own personal imperfections. Unfortunately, to return to the original point, I tend to believe that it's easy to romanticise Welles' failed films, and see potential in them where, I believe, there is none: The Lady of Shanghai, if not a full failure, is at least circling the downward spiral into a ridiculous mess that I suspect even had it come out as Welles intended, it would have still be rubbish.
The film itself deals of Michael O'Hara, a rough, but poetic, down and out man who works on ships, and his by chance meeting with Elsa Bannister, the rich, but young and beautiful, wife of the crippled lawyer, Arthur. Welles himself plays O'Hara and he is, as far as I'm concerned, the biggest flaw in the film. It's difficult to decide if it's the ridiculously painful Irish accent in which he speaks for the entire film, or if it's the romanticised, down and out author who believes that being poor keeps him pure, but who is eventually lead astray from this principle by the beautiful woman and his need for cash to keep her. I've a low tolerance for such a romanticised character--it's slumming, basically and, like the real people in life who I've met like this, there's not much time I can spend in the presence of them before I start wanting bad things to happen to them. In terms of Welles performance, it leaves an artificiality on the character, and on him, that never allows for you to forget that he's an actor, playing a role, and that they're all actors, and that they're all, really, slumming it. That, unfortunately, doesn't begin to cover Glenn Anders' Grisby, whose performance is built on an irritating laugh, close ups, and a plot device that no one would have ever believed. That last may have indeed been the point in the larger film, but in the hour and a half version that remains, it is played seriously.
Perhaps the attraction of the film, the one that remains, is watched Welles and Hayworth, who, under the latter's motivation, were doing the film together in an attempt to fix their failing marriage, which it reportedly did at the time. The reading of the film in which the audience (you and I) feel as if we are watching Welles' critique of his failed marriage is not one that was done intentionally with the film, but one that was applied later, when, at the time of the film's release, Welles and Hayworth had parted their ways. It remains, however, that there is a certain voyeuristic content to The Lady from Shanghai, which will sustain you for the film's duration, if you have such an interest in either of the two main actors, which I do. It's a slightly pointless reading, if you believe that Welles was making no statement.
That, however, pretty much sums up The Lady from Shanghai. A brilliant title, but butcher by the studios, hamstrung by Welles' own performance from the start, and with nothing but the shabby remains for us to pick over.
I did like the speech about sharks, however.