Elsa: The Chinese say, it is difficult for love to last long. Therefore, one who loves passionately is cured of love, in the end.
Michael: Sure, that’s a hard way of thinking.
Elsa: There’s more to the proverb: Human nature is eternal. Therefore, one who follows his nature keeps his original nature, in the end.
The opening scenes of Orson Welles’ 1947 film noir classic The Lady from Shanghai present us with a subversive take on the traditional Cinderella fairy tale. Michael O’Shea (Welles), a sailor, walks alone in New York’s central park. His attention is grabbed by a vision in polka-dotted white, sitting alone in a horse-drawn carriage. He greets her, flirts with her, offers her his last cigarette: “It’s me last one—I’ve been looking forward to it, so please don’t disappoint me.” She charmingly tells him that she doesn’t smoke, then, gazing deeply into his eyes, she slowly grasps the offered cigarette and wraps it in a handkerchief—a favor, lovingly tucked into her handbag. The carriage drives away, leaving Mike behind. Moments later, he finds the handbag discarded on the ground, the wrapped cigarette falling out of the top, and hears the mysterious lady’s cries for help. He fights off three “amateur” ruffians trying to rob her, and commandeers the carriage to drive her home.
Mike is caught in a romantic haze. Fancifully, he dubs the lady Rosalie, “Princess of Central Park,” and regales her with tales of his brave exploits in an effort to impress her. “You’re a character,” she replies, a slight laugh in her voice that belies the steely expression behind her eyes, which he cannot see from his driver’s seat above the coach. He asks about her past: “Where does the princess come from?” At first she plays coy: “I don’t know why she should tell you.” But after a brief pause, she reveals her past, telling him that she was born in Chifu, China, a city Mike dubs “the second wickedest city in the world.” She tells him she worked in Macao and Shanghai, hinting at a dissolute past. “I hope you were luckier [there] than tonight,” he says laughingly. Her expression darkens. “You need more than luck in Shanghai,” she intones.
This “princess” is no damsel in distress, and our “prince charming” is anything but. The Lady from Shanghai is not so much the tale of Cinderella, but of the spider and the fly—and she’s just invited him into her parlor.
Shanghai is not a love story, but rather one that examines–admittedly with a sometimes heavy hand–the darker half of human nature. It is a tale of infatuation gone awry, of obsession and lust and greed that come close to destroying one self-admittedly foolish man. The source of that infatuation, the beautiful and secretive Elsa Bannister, is an almost painfully prototypical femme fatale, conducting the men around her in an orchestra of devious machinations driven by jealousy and avarice. But there’s something especially fascinating about this particular villainess, a convincing air of innocence and doubt that clouds our judgment of Elsa just as easily as it does the men in her orbit.
The woman who plays her, Rita Hayworth, may be best remembered for her participation in a different noir classic, the 1946 film Gilda. That role—largely an anomaly in her career up to that point—made the already-famous star an icon, but it’s her performance in Shanghai that truly underscores what a magnificent talent Hayworth was. Beyond the sultry gazes and the promise of her bedroom voice, there was a skilled actress just looking for a chance to make her mark beyond the typical song-and-dance-and-a-little-romance roles into which she had long been shunted at Columbia. And the man who would finally give it to her was Shanghai’s writer/director/star, who just happened to be her own estranged husband. Welles believed in Hayworth’s abilities as an actor, and in the years after the film’s release, he adamantly defended her performance: “She was magnificent! And she thought she wasn’t. And nobody in the town would give her any credit for it,” he pronounced in My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (2013).
Much has been made of Welles’ decision to have Hayworth’s famed red mane cut and dyed for Shanghai. In retrospect, however, the drastic alteration in Hayworth’s appearance may have been one of the more astute choices the director made in regards to the film. For one thing, it separates the character from Hayworth’s more accessible Gilda. Elsa’s icy platinum tresses provide a sort of a second skin for Hayworth, one into which she slips with an ease that is remarkable to behold. This new persona—the coolly controlled blonde, her treachery hidden behind a virtuous, lovely facade—is one that Hayworth embodies to perfection. Her Gilda may have been sex personified, but her Elsa holds back, her desire leashed until the exact moment she needs to wield it.
And wield it she does, with unquestioning skill. Michael’s attempts to detach himself from her appeal continually fail, because Elsa is just that adept at maneuvering him, using his love for her as a weapon to her own devious ends. Like the best of noir’s femme fatales, she adeptly paints a convincing portrait of herself as a victim, bound to a crippled and controlling husband. Elsa goes so far as even feigning suicidal thoughts: “I’ve looked at those pills so many times,” she admits, referring to Bannister’s painkillers. But even this heartfelt “confession” is false; it’s merely an attempt to plant a seed for later, foreshadowing Mike’s use of the drugs (at her subtle encouragement) to escape the courtroom in the film’s climactic trial.
As a puppet master, Elsa has few equals: she manipulates three men at once, using feminine wiles and the guarantees of love and sex to keep them in line with her plans. But it’s difficult to feel sorry for those men, because to each of them, Elsa is little more than an object to be won and prized. To her husband, the brilliant and crooked lawyer, she is a trophy wife, one whom he has bought and paid for (and, as if to underscore her status as a possession, Bannister continually refers to her throughout the film as “Lover” instead of calling her by name). To her co-conspirator Grisby, she represents something he can steal from the partner he despises, for running away with her—and with the insurance money from his own “death”—would be the ultimate victory, making Bannister “impotent” in every sense of the word. And for Mike—well, our “foolish knight errant,” as Elsa labels him, is the only one who seems to value her as a person, but, like Bannister and Grisby, that value is tied into her beauty and sexual appeal, for he ultimately knows, or cares, little about her true personality.
To a certain extent, it is hard not to sympathize with Elsa Bannister, a woman who, through the tidbits of her past we are allowed to glimpse, has obviously spent her life bartering her good looks and sexual prowess for safe passage through the world. Yes, she’s a murdering, manipulative femme fatale of the first water. That is her inherent nature, and in the end, she does not deny the truth of that; during the climactic confrontation in the Hall of Mirrors, Michael recalls the pithy Chinese proverb she recited earlier in the film: “One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end. But haven’t you heard ever of something better to follow?” Her simple and honest reply: “No.”
Despite her sins, Elsa is so deliciously good at being bad–and so unapologetically self-aware–that you cannot help but root for her to come out on top. More intriguing than Welles’ stalwart anti-hero, more devious than either of the sleazy lawyers who desire her, Hayworth’s calculating Elsa remains the most interesting, ruthless character in Shanghai, one whose innate appeal very nearly transcends the wickedness of her actions.