The reaction to the rather odd movie was mixed. One person said, having seen it, she would not choose to view it again. It can be cumbersome viewing it. The film feels like pieces are missing, and the viewer can get lost in the convoluted plot. This is not a surprise, since director Orson Welles planned a much longer movie that was cut drastically by Columbia (TCM article). The sections that were removed were destroyed at some point, so hopes for a director's cut are likely futile. Peter Bogdanovich in his commentary on the film, is eager to shift any blame for the film's defects away from Orson Welles and onto other parties, including Rita Hayworth. Mr. Welles' history as a director and producer demonstrate that he certainly is responsible for much of the film's problems.
Welles' opening narration sets the audience up to wonder at just what exactly Elsa Bannister is up to. Rita Hayworth does not disappoint as a seemingly demure, but somewhat shady character. Her voice, her mannerisms, her eyes all signal the duplicity of Elsa. The notorious hair cut and dye job which so irked Harry Cohn also help her to create this very cunning lady. It's been said that she asked her then-husband Welles for the part - he wanted then unknown actress Barbara Laage, (Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius by Charles Higham) while Ida Lupino was also under consideration at one point (AFI Catalog). Though their marriage was crumbling when she agreed to take on the part of Elsa, she may have been trying to patch up the union, or at the very least assist Welles in providing child support for their daughter, Rebecca. Sadly, the marriage still ended in November 1947, just around the time filming ended, exacerbated by Mr. Welles infidelities (Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming). (AMC Filmsite). At the same time, a New Yorker DVD of the Week notes that Welles' many close-ups of Mr. Hayworth are loving in their attention to her.
Glenn Anders is appropriately creepy and revolting as George Grisby. He is well matched by Everett Sloane as the sly lawyer and husband. According to Mr. Bogdanovich, Mr. Welles decided to put him on crutches because he didn't like Mr. Sloane's walk. The effect of the crutches and the odd gait that Mr. Sloane affects is disquieting.
The film was shot on location in New York, San Francisco, and Acapulco, though one of the early scenes in New York really looks like a poorly designed set (other scenes are clearly of New York). The yacht scenes were filmed aboard Errol Flynn's boat, the Zaca, and it has been said that Mr. Flynn actually appeared in the film, though no one is sure exactly where he appears (Paula's Cinema Club).
Loosely based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King. Welles offered to direct it if Harry Cohen would give him $50,000 so his musical production of Around the World (with music by Cole Porter) could open (the production had run out of funds just before opening night, and they need to pay for the costumes) The rights to the book were owned by William Castle, who was an associate producer on the movie. It went through a number of titles before release including Black Irish, If I Die Before I Wake, and Take This Woman.
The reviews at the time of release were poor, as is evidenced by this New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, who said that Mr. Welles "has a strange way of marring his films with sloppiness which he seems to assume that his dazzling exhibitions of skill will camouflage." As the years progressed, the regard for the film increased, as evidenced by this Irish Times discussion from 2014 and J. Hoberman's discussion of the film in the New York Times on its blu ray release. The Lady from Shanghai was added to the National Film Registry in 2018
This is an essential film - in a recent Noir Alley, Eddie Muller called it "a cinematic bombshell" and "the most daring, sinister, alluring, and combustible... mess ever released by a major studio." You may love it or hate it, but it's one that should be seen. We'll leave you with this trailer: