Mirrors of a Character: Rita Hayworth in “The Lady from Shanghai”

Rita Hayworth in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures

Elsa Bannister is the enduring attraction of bad. We know we could all succumb to it at one point or another. As she explains, “One who follows one’s original nature keeps one’s original nature… in the end.” Elsa has no conscience anymore, but she is not necessarily unhuman by nature, but the result of what others have made her (she was psychologically abused by her husband). Her duplicity and actions are not driven by a lust for power and money, like in the case of so many femmes fatales, but out of a need to square things out, even if that means becoming evil.

Rita Hayworth was no longer the extroverted starlet, the one who appeared in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, where her tremendous sex appeal was already palpable, nor was she the radiant and vivacious star with red locks in Gilda, where she was part femme fatale, part pin-up girl. Her cropped, dyed champaign blonde hair in The Lady from Shanghai, a change of look that was Orson Welles’ idea and to Rita’s own liking, may have caused controversy and shock (there was a theory that got around that this was some kind of poor vengeance of Welles’ – he and Rita had been separated for a couple of years when they got together to film Lady from Shanghai), but it was a brilliant move that helped shape the image of one of the most underrated and essential femmes fatales in film history. Hayworth defied expectations with a quiet, precise, icy performance. She is pure noir. “Rita’s awfully good in it, don’t you think? And at the time, people didn’t even notice – she was too famous as a cover girl. Oh, the French loved her. But, then, the French do not automatically assume that if a girl is beautiful it follows that she’s a lousy actress,” Welles would tell Peter Bogdanovich in their interviews.

The fact was that Orson didn’t even want Rita in the picture. The role had been written for another actress, Barbara Laage. Rita was the studio’s idea, because they wanted to make an expensive Hayworth A picture, completely opposite Orson’s wishes. But Orson took this as a chance to prove everyone that Rita was more than a star, that she was a real actress, and he was eventually very proud of Hayworth’s performance. He didn’t want to present Rita as just a beauty, the image the studio had always wanted to sell, but as a destructive woman, what her character was. “She couldn’t come on as the well-established pinup; she needed a whole new look. So we made her platinum blonde with very short hair. You can imagine how delighted Harry Cohn was when he found out about that!”, Orson Welles would recall. Cohn was the studio boss.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures

The Lady from Shanghai is both beautiful and artificial, true to the idea that form dominates over content in film noir. Every shot is calculated for maximum effect. Orson Welles’ stylistic radicalism and innovative visual qualities are what make the film such a fascinating and impenetrable noir. From the very beginning, with that shot from Central Park, when Welles’ Michael O’Hara meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) for the first time, wearing a sweetheart-neckline, caped-sleeved white dress with black polka dots, in a carriage, we are introduced to a dreamlike world. It is a scene that looks very different from the rest of the film and Orson would later confess that it was one of his worst moments from all his films. “When I think of it, my flesh crawls. The whole sequence has no flavor… Even Rita doesn’t look like she does in the rest of the picture.” Michael O’Hara refers to her as “princess”.

But Elsa Bannister also talks about her time in Macao and Shanghai, which is the first sign to suggest that “she is more hard-bitten than she appears”, Steven Sanders remarks in the book Film Noir: The Directors. And one can not deny that both this sequence and Rita’s look work to enhance the strangeness of The Lady from Shanghai, and that ambiguous, detached from reality feeling that follows the viewer throughout the film. Because even if Orson believed that this strangeness was destroyed because of the flawed musical score the studio used against his indications, transforming the movie into another whodunit, when we arrive at the end, it is still not clear what to make of this whole game of betrayal, murder and erotic infatuation. The film does not make it easy for the viewer to follow the narrative and is visually so rich and unconventional that you are reminded that this is why film noir, the purest kind of film noir that is, where The Lady from Shanghai belongs, is a genre that belongs to cinema alone.

Rita Hayworth in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures

Michael O’Hara is a sail man who gets caught in a deadly intrigue with the mysterious Elsa Bannister – “O’Hara was was one of those poor sods who watches sunrises and quotes poetry,” Orson told Bogdanovich. She is the wife of the famous criminal defense lawyer Arthur Bannister and offers O’Hara a job on her husband’s yacht. After he initially refuses both her and her husband, Michael agrees to working for them on a boat trip throughout the Caribbean.

At first, Michael is a figure of authority, in control over the others. Until he steps foot on the boat. From then on, not only does he become gradually lost in a world of lies and deception, but the viewer, too, feels to be stepping into a nightmarish reality, and, even more unsettling, into O’Hara’s mind. This character identity loss is visually shown with incredibly precise skill. Elsa is always photographed in a luminous light, accentuating O’Hara’s dreamlike vision of her, as cinematographer Darius Khondji explains in an interview with Vincent Paul-Boncour, all the more so because everything else around is shadowy, even a day of swimming at sea, whereas Michael is always shot in an obscure, fading light, a sign of his downfall.

One of the defining sequences that show this is when O’Hara is approached by the devious character of Grisby, Arthur Bannister’s partner, when he is watching Rita swimming and sun-bathing in a one-piece bathing suit. He senses the evil undertones of everything around him, but O’Hara is incapable of hiding his bewilderment to Elsa’s beauty. Elsa represents seduction and female power. Right now he does not see, nor care, that she is only wearing a mask. The more he becomes trapped in his maddening love for Elsa, the more lost he becomes. “And from that moment on I did not use my head very much, except to be thinking of her.” When Grisby offers O’Hara $5,000 to confess to murdering him so that Grisby can disappear and cash in on an insurance policy, Michael is downright naïve, falling deeper in his abnormal behaviour, not realising the flaws of the plan, only thinking that he can take Elsa away with that money.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures

Rita’s costumes were created by Jean Louis, the designer who had also dressed her for Gilda. They worked together on nine movies. But as revealing her gowns for Gilda were, just as constricting her clothes in The Lady from Shanghai are. All her outfits are more or less closed up, except for a couple of sequences on the boat, when she appears in a swimming suit and shorts. In order to pass the Production Code regulations, they had to add an asymmetric strap to an initially strapless swimming suit. But all the other looks had nothing to do with the Code, including the fact that, when she is on the boat, she constantly throws a bathrobe or a military pea-coat over her swimming suit or shorts.

When Michael follows her as she runs through the labyrinth streets of Acapulco, in another surreal sequence, she again appears in white, but yet again her bare shoulders dress is covered by a transparent cape. From here on, her costumes become even more buttoned-up. In that regard, it is interesting to note that the studio made everything in its power to shoot as many publicity stills as possible of Rita in seducing gowns that never appeared in the film (such as the laced black dress in the mirrors serene), much to the disapproval of Orson Welles – the image of the star was more important to them than the film or Rita’s acting abilities.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures


“If I’d known where it would end, I’d never let anything start.
If I’d been in my right mind, that is. But once I’d seen her,
I was not in my right mind for quite some time.”


Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures

On the night of the murders, Elsa wears a black dress with a high-neck bodice, short dolman sleeves, cinched waist and ankle-length pleated skirt adorned with metal discs from the knee down (an element of surprise when you see the full dress). I believe this is Rita’s look and face, disquieting and ominous, that encapsulate her true self best for the very first time (she and Grisby have in fact have framed up both O’Hara and Arthur). Then we see her in the courtroom, elegance impersonated, in what appears to be a grey suit, with the net veil of her hat covering her face. Next she wears a white brocade jacket when she goes to see Michael in jail. She sits with Arthur on the bench in the hallway waiting to go in and he hesitantly puts his hand on the collar of the jacket, then immediately withdraws it under Elsa’s cold look. Her jacket is her armour.

In the final sequence, in the hall of mirrors, she is again wearing black, a sober skirt suit and net veil hat, when she reveals that she is no more calculating and devious, but bordering madness. It is when we see Elsa’s face among the heavily painted actors in the Chinese theater that its deadpan quality is mirrored to unsettling proportions. The fact that the height of her performance coincides with that brilliant, staggering cinematic moment, the mirrors shot (one that Orson himself was the proudest of, because he had wanted and succeeded in doing something that had never been done before in film), is beautiful and one of the greatest legacies of cinema.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in “The Lady from Shanghai”, 1947 | Columbia Pictures


Editorial sources: Orson Welles: Interviews, by Peter Bogdanovich; Film Noir: The Directors, edited by James Ursini and Alain Silver; Miroirs d’un Film: La Dame de Shanghai (Frank Lafond essay and interview with Darius Khonji, by Vincent Paul-Boncour), released by Carlotta Films



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