“With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
– Moby-Dick (Melville)
Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai begins with the sea, roiling and foaming beneath the opening credits. Many films noir are laden with existential anxieties; indeed, fatalism and cynicism are as commonplace in the genre as stylized lighting, bantering innuendoes, and convoluted crimes. The Lady from Shanghai is remarkable for the way it externalizes the sea of uncertainty upon which its characters sail. This is a noir defined by nautical imagery, taking place almost entirely on beaches and boats, or in seaside cities. Its hero, Michael O’Hara (Welles himself, with a dodgy Irish accent), is an able-bodied seaman and self-proclaimed “deliberate, intentional fool,” drifting aimlessly around a bewildering world that keeps trying to tie him down. Welles’ acting career frequently found him playing larger-than-life characters whose dubious selves were hidden behind multivalent reputations. We approach Citizen Kane’s central figure, for instance, through a series of conflicting accounts from those who “knew” him, slowly whittling away the mystery and intrigue until all that remains is a sad, yearning hollowness. Not so in Lady from Shanghai: here, we are immediately presented with O’Hara’s own perspective on events, and he gets right down to the underlying emptiness, swiftly and roundly disabusing the audience of any illusions of grandeur: “I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly am not.” By his own admission, he is not a man of ambition; when we meet him, he has “plenty of time and nothing to do but get [himself] in trouble.” Nor is he a man of principles: “I never make up my mind about anything at all until it’s over and done with.” When questioned about weighty matters – suicide, for instance – his most common reply is simply “I don’t know.”
The storylines of films noir, replete with adulteries and murders as they are, often take their cues from the slow decay of traditional values in postwar American society, and Welles’ film is no different, revolving as it does around frayed social contracts, especially between men and women. This story is set in motion by a temptation. By chance, Michael meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and offers her a cigarette. She says she doesn’t smoke, but keeps it anyway. It is love at first sight, or its closest equivalent in this genre, and of course it is accompanied by ominous warning signs. “I don’t know how to shoot,” she tells him when he discovers a gun in her purse. “It’s simple,” he replies. “You just pull the trigger.” Moreover, she is married. O’Hara narrates, “Personally, I don’t like a girlfriend to have a husband. If she’ll fool her husband, I figure she’ll fool me.” There is no pretense towards a description of absolute values here. Personally, he says, he doesn’t like it. O’Hara’s qualms with the idea of adultery are purely pragmatic; indeed, moral concerns almost never factor into the film’s storyline. His account of his infatuation is curiously muted, though its detachment is, perhaps, hardly surprising. All the clichés of swooning romance are there on paper – “I did not use my head very much, except to be thinking of her” – but there’s little overt passion in their delivery, or in Welles’ tight-wound, undemonstrative performance. O’Hara is a stoic of sorts, deeply suspicious of desire and the troubles that it engenders. He describes himself as having no appetite, and indeed, only Elsa seems to spark any sort of longing in him. He observes the chaos of his own soul dispassionately, as if from afar, but seems unable to do anything about it. He equates his desire for Elsa to a kind of insanity: “If I’d known where it would end,” he tells us in the film’s first minutes, “I’d never let anything start, if I’d been in my right mind, that is. But once I’d seen her… once I’d seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some time.”
Fittingly enough, Elsa lures O’Hara away from shore and onto a yacht called the Circe, after the sorceress who lured Odysseus’ crewmen astray and turned them into beasts. Like many femme fatales, Mrs. Bannister is presented as a figure who invites both fascination and ambivalence. More than once, and more than a little suggestively, she asks O’Hara for help, but he is skeptical: “You think you’re needing me to help you. You’re not that kind. If you need anything, you help yourself.” While Welles is off playing Ishmael, Hayworth gets to play Ahab, a larger-than-life enigma whose actions and motives are the subject of frequent speculation, and whose origins are shrouded in mystery: “You never heard of the place she came from,” and there’s apparently a scandalous story about how she came to marry Mr. Bannister (Everett Sloane), though we never get to hear it. The attraction between Welles and Hayworth, who were husband and wife at the time, is haunted by ambiguity, impossibility, and vague but palpable longing. Early on, Michael drives Elsa’s horse-drawn carriage, looking down at her from above before descending to be with her. Elsewhere, on the yacht, he sits below deck while she sings a love song above, summoning him upwards into the open air. There is a sense that they live on different planes, in different worlds, and yet share an ineffable connection.
Indeed, Michael’s desire for Elsa drags him into a world he wants to remain separate from and threatens to cost him his independence. “You’ve been traveling around the world too much to find out anything about it,” taunts Arthur, Elsa’s rich husband – a sentiment she echoes, describing Michael as a “foolish knight errant” who doesn’t “know anything about the world.” This is no accident on Michael’s part: he strives mightily to distance himself from the “bright, guilty world,” adamantly refusing to be governed by the monetary concerns that drive Elsa, Arthur, and Arthur’s partner Grisby (Glenn Anders) to tear each other apart. According to Arthur, “money is what all of us have in common,” but Michael does not wish to be like everyone else, and shuns money accordingly: “I’ve always found it very sanitary to be broke.” O’Hara delivers his polemic against the corruption of mammon in the form of one of cinema’s great shark monologues (second to Robert Shaw in Jaws):
“Once, off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black, and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse… until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.”
Even as he paints the world of the Bannisters in such starkly damning terms, Michael is drawn into their sordid miniature drama by Elsa, who, rather than disentangling herself from the world, is driven the opposite direction, trying to “make terms” with it. “Running away doesn’t work,” she tells him, “I tried it. Everything’s bad…” Unwilling to abandon her, Michael compromises his principles, consenting to a harebrained murder scheme promising them enough money to run away together. The scene of the two lovers’ brief union occurs in an aquarium, where, strikingly, they appear to be underwater themselves. Michael, led by desire to make terms with the world, has become like the others. He is playing the part of a shark.
“Now he knows about us,” Elsa says, panicked, when Grisby witnesses an illicit kiss. “I wish I did,” Michael replies, voicing the epistemological uncertainty that pervades the film. Like many of Welles’ works, The Lady from Shanghai is constantly playing on the unreliability of perception. Grisby is first introduced watching Elsa through a telescope – a device that recurs in the early seagoing passages, evoking shades of Hitchcockian voyeurism. There are no fixed points of reference in this world. Even when the action is not literally taking place at sea, it seems to occur in a kind of dreamlike haze, bordering on the surreal. When Mr. Bannister first meets Michael, he describes him as a “tough guy.” Another sailor corrects him: “What’s a tough guy? A guy with an edge… a gun or a knife, a nightstick or razor, somethin’ the other guy ain’t got… without an edge, there ain’t no tough guy.” No human possesses an inherent quality of “toughness”; instead, he is only defined as “tough” because of something external – and something external, of course, can be taken away.
This existential anxiety finds its most explicit expression in The Lady from Shanghai’s clumsy courtroom sequence, a narrative digression that sadly dampens the film’s dramatic and emotional momentum but nevertheless dovetails thematically with the rest of its concerns. The central murder plot hinges on an absurd legal logic puzzle like something out of a season of Fargo. Grisby, Bannister’s partner, hires Michael to confess to killing him so that he can fake his death. Like Michael, Grisby wants to detach from the world at large; he harbors delusions of an impending apocalypse, and wants to be far away from civilization when it happens. He wants to “live in peace,” which will not be possible unless the world is satisfied that he “doesn’t exist.” Outlining the plot to Michael, he prattles, “You know, the law’s a funny thing, fella… There’s no such thing as homicide unless they find a corpse. It just isn’t murder if they don’t find a body. According to the law, I’m dead if you say you murdered me. But you’re not a murderer unless I’m dead. Silly, isn’t it?” Of course, Grisby truly does wind up dead, and Michael, having signed a confession for a murder that was not supposed to occur, gets the blame. In The Lady from Shanghai, the law is, indeed, a “funny thing,” as the cuckolded Mr. Bannister defends his wife’s lover in an extended, preposterous parody of a courtroom scene. The trial is a travesty, but how could it be anything else in this baffling world? As the nature of reality becomes increasingly obfuscated, the institution of the law breaks down. At Elsa’s unspoken urging (a curious glance between the two almost suggesting some kind of psychic instruction), Michael escapes the Kafkaesque courtroom by attempting, or pretending to attempt, or attempting to pretend, to kill himself by downing a handful of Arthur’s pain pills. On his way out of the courthouse, he eludes the law by posing as part of a departing jury, rather than a defendant – which is to say, he escapes the dilemma by removing himself from it, once again positioning himself as an observer of the drama, not a participant. Tragically, however, the only way he can prove his innocence is by displacing the guilt onto the woman he loves.
“I was taught to think about love in Chinese,” Elsa tells Michael in one of their early conversations. “The Chinese say it is difficult for love to last long. Therefore, one who loves passionately is cured of love in the end.” Throughout The Lady from Shanghai, Elsa is – as the title suggests – associated with the Orient, the Other, the foreign. In the film’s final jarring shift in location, Michael flees from the courtroom, Arthur’s world, into Chinatown, Elsa’s world. Welles leaves the Chinese dialogue unsubtitled, leaving us as bewildered as his dazed hero, who wanders into a theater, passes out, and is taken to an abandoned amusement park, where he wakes up at the natural endpoint of his journey: in the Crazy House. “I must be insane,” he says, “Or else all these people are lunatics” – and later, “Either me, or the rest of the whole world is absolutely insane.” In the end, O’Hara decides that he is the sane one, as he overcomes his “insane” love of Elsa by solving the murder mystery and pinpointing her as the culprit. Finally, when she tries to tempt him, he refuses to be taken in, repudiating one of her Chinese proverbs: “‘One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.’ But haven’t you ever heard of something better to follow?”
Mr. and Mrs. Bannister confront each other in the hall of mirrors, surrounded by unending repetitions of themselves, ending their unhappy, loveless marriage in a hail of gunfire. “With these mirrors, it’s difficult to tell,” Arthur says. “You are aiming at me, aren’t you? I’m aiming at you, lover. Of course, killing you is killing myself. It’s the same thing. But you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us.” In the resulting shootout, husband and wife destroy every version of each other, while O’Hara alone escapes to tell thee, miraculously surviving with only a flesh wound – saved, perhaps, by his detachment from the world and rejection of his natural desires. His prophecy of the sharks, “mad with their own blood, chewing away at their own selves,” comes true, as Elsa lies dying like Bannister and Grisby. Her ethos, her willingness to make terms with the bad world is, inevitably, her undoing: “the badness’ll deal with you,” Michael says, “And make its own terms, in the end.”
“You can fight, but what good is it?” Elsa asks. “We can’t win.”
“We can’t lose, either,” Michael replies. “Only if we quit.”
“And you’re not going to,” she says.
“Not again,” he says, and walks away, out through the door, leaving her to die. The Lady from Shanghai began with the sea, and it ends with the sea, as Michael walks out of the Crazy House and back to the ocean, having wandered through the world of mutually destructive desire and out the other side. “The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old,” he concludes, “So I guess I’ll concentrate on that.” But this stoically unmoored existence is a hard way to live. His ethos is almost purely negative, not positive – it centers on the avoidance of vice, not the attainment of virtue. As such, it’s unsurprising that his detachment, resolute though it may be, is haunted by a wistfulness that lingers long after the end of the film. O’Hara’s vision of the future is an ocean of regrets. “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her,” he says, his final words as he returns to the sea. “Maybe I’ll die trying.”