Sunday, 28 January 2007

The Lady from Shanghai


Reclining listlessly on her yacht, Elsa Bannister, urged by her eager, voyeuristic husband Arthur and his vulgar crony Grisby, sings “Please Don’t Kiss Me,” a tired, broken hearted elegy. It is here and now that her lover, Michael O’Hara, realizes the depth of his feeling, the acuteness of her longing and the ominous current which is dragging them all under.

This scene was never supposed to exist. Panicked that a Rita Hayworth film without a musical number would sink at the box office, producer Harry Cohn ate $60,000 of his own money and ordered Orson Welles to shoot it. As it turns out, it’s impossible to imagine The Lady from Shanghai without it.

The scene begins with the camera lingering over Hayworth’s body, as if it were a lover bearing down on her, uncomfortably forced to heed the title of the song. The allure of her vacant expression feeds an unconsummated tension. If ever the limitations of the cinema were apparent, it’s here. Somehow Welles, only Welles, makes this tormenting restriction of the medium a key element of the drama. Of course Arthur Bannister, crooked of body and mind, could never satisfy a woman like Elsa. He, too, hangs over her—looking, but not touching.

Orson Welles, as the ‘black Irishman’ Michael O’Hara, creeps below deck, as if in Elsa’s subconscious, an anxious, oversized figure. “Talk of money and murder, I must be insane,” he mutters, “or these people are lunatics.” Blame Elsa. As the song progresses, the camera descends, the lover unable to stay away. Simultaneously O’Hara is drawn upstairs as she exhales the song with the smoke in her mouth, almost in one long, dispassionate sigh:

Please don’t hold me
But if you hold me
Don’t take your arms away.
Comes a change of weather,
Comes a change of heart
And who knows when the rain will start?

Bathed in shadow, O’Hara watches her entertain the sweaty boredom of Arthur and Grisby. So beguiling is Hayworth’s performance that her mouth eventually seems the very center of the universe. Like a siren’s call, it’s what will send O’Hara crashing to the rocks. How ironic: on a yacht, all ostensibly drifting in the same direction, and yet each character trying to drag the other their own way. While quite beautiful, there’s also something deathly in Elsa’s delivery. She lays still, as if on a slab, disturbed only by the cigarette she brings to her lips. Her movements seem unnaturally premeditated, hinting at the fate—the unerring heartbeat of noir—which will befall her. Her delivery is the antithesis of Gilda’s ebullient “Put the Blame on Mame.” Here she seems to have withdrawn so far into herself that the revelation of her murderous greed later on comes as no real surprise.

Film noir floats on a thin raft. The surface is a visual seduction, the melodic allure of romance. Below it? The threat of a dragging tide. But, inevitably, the men of noir are always drawn toward the kiss, even in the face of its assured consequence. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past are true illustrations of the genre’s preoccupation with destructive, manipulating women. As if in microcosm, Elsa’s song warns at the fateful outcome of her own seduction: “Please Don’t Kiss Me” is a plea for both of them. Ready to shoot her, in the famous mirror sequence, Arthur can take the trap no longer, “Of course killing you is killing myself, it’s the same thing. But you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us.”

The slow, mournful song comes to an end with Elsa mouthing “away,” the lingering lover leaving her mouth unkissed. Elsa closes her eyes, turning away before the slow fade out, as Welles ends the scene with the same deathly imagery with which it began. It’s possibly the finest concession to an anxious studio ever made.

Directed by Orson Welles
With Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane
Screenplay: Orson Welles

This review first appeared in Stylus Magazine (

P. Cabrelli

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