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Strangers and Mirrors

Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

By David Lehman | May 26, 2020
Orson Welles and Loretta Young in 1946's The Stranger (Wikimedia Commons)
Orson Welles and Loretta Young in 1946's The Stranger (Wikimedia Commons)

Orson Welles directed and starred in two late-’40s noirs. He is the hapless hero in one; in the other, the dastardly villain. In The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Welles cast himself as itinerant Irish sailor Michael O’Hara, who narrates the film and is the fall guy in an intricate homicidal plot. In The Stranger (1946), Welles plays an unrepentant Nazi. In both, the acting up and down the cast is superb, and the direction a marvel.

The Stranger has the more straightforward plot and is the more righteous of the two. It includes newsreel footage informing an incredulous public of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. It is also the only movie Welles made that showed a profit when it was first released. Variety called it “socko melodrama.”

Franz Kindler (Welles), a bigwig in the Third Reich, who is said to have “conceived the theory of genocide,” has reinvented himself as Charles Rankin, an instructor at the exclusive Harper School for Boys (“established 1827”) in an idyllic Connecticut village. An imprisoned Nazi fanatic, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), is released in the hope that he will lead the authorities—in the person of pipe-smoking Mr. Wilson, agent of the war crimes commission (Edward G. Robinson)—to Kindler.

Rankin has married Mary (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice. “And the girl is even good to look at,” Welles tells Shayne, with the roguish twinkle that would serve him well in The Third Man. As the evidence against her husband mounts, Mary is understandably reluctant to accept that the dynamic prep school teacher she married is a villain capable of strangling a man to death with his bare hands.

A suspension of disbelief is the price of admission. Incredibly, Kindler hasn’t a trace of a German accent. Yet, as if to confirm the hypothesis that the film, in its larger-than-life fashion, postulates, history has given us a procession of forgetful ex-Nazis in high places.

Mr. Wilson is present at the dinner where Rankin tries to deflect suspicion by heaping scorn on the German national character. But Rankin, polished though he is, makes a slip when Karl Marx is mentioned. “Marx wasn’t a German, he was a Jew,” Rankin blurts out, and Wilson wakes up in the middle of the night and knows his man, because only a Nazi would have made this distinction. At the film’s denouement, atop the village church’s clock tower, Edward G. Robinson gets to say, “You’re finished, Herr Franz Kindler.”

Where The Stranger takes place in a picture-perfect New England village dominated by its clock tower and monitored by the checkers-playing proprietor of the drug store (“All your needs are on our shelves”), The Lady from Shanghai is in constant motion. The movie begins in New York’s Central Park after dark where Michael O’Hara (Welles) on foot meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in a horse-drawn carriage. He offers her a cigarette. “But I don’t smoke,” she says. Nevertheless she wraps it in a handkerchief as a memento, and after Michael proves his mettle by rescuing Elsa from a trio of muggers, he is recruited to join her, her husband Arthur, and their entourage on a yacht sailing to San Francisco via the Panama Canal and Acapulco. Aboard the “Circe,” Elsa smokes like an old pro.

The Lady from Shanghai generates sexual heat of the kind that is absent from more licentious works. Hayworth is a magnificent femme fatale, less of a chingona than Barbara Stanwyck but just as dangerous. The plot of the movie isn’t easy to follow. My advice is not to try. Rather, take pleasure in “Please Don’t Kiss Me” (dubbed for Hayworth by Anita Ellis), a song that means the opposite of its title. Early in the film you get to hear it on a jukebox while Arthur (Everett Sloane), “the world’s greatest living trial lawyer,” listens to someone named Jake expound on the value of having an “edge”—in the sense that the guy singing the song on the jukebox has “an edge.” Though I’ve no proof but my ears, the uncredited voice is, I believe, that of Welles’s old drinking buddy Frank Sinatra.

When the movie was made, Hayworth was married to Welles. At the director’s command, she was shorn of her long red locks in favor of short blond hair. Apparently Welles felt that no one would believe that Hayworth was a calculating killer unless he refashioned her looks. Maybe he got her wrong. “Men go to bed with Gilda and wake up disappointed that it’s me,” Hayworth once said. The studio (Columbia) hated what he did to her hair, and the film flopped. All the same, Hayworth remains a knockout in The Lady from Shanghai, and though (or because) the marriage ended soon after the film was released, the love scenes are intense.

There is a meshugenah scheme involving a life insurance policy. Grisby, Arthur’s creepy partner (Glenn Anders), pays Michael to sign a confession to a murder that has not been committed. When Grisby is shot, Michael is charged with the crime. Bannister, who has never lost a case but is not eager to win this one, defends him at the trial. Elsa’s cuckolded husband, who needs crutches to move, can be pompous, can be nasty, but does have undeniable courtroom skills and showmanship. Called as a witness, he gets to cross-examine himself and makes the most of the moment. Two excited Chinese girls in the gallery comment in their native language until one turns to the American vernacular: “You ain’t kiddin’.”

Two scenes and a phrase linger with me. When Elsa and Michael have an assignation in the San Francisco aquarium, we see their silhouettes kissing in the foreground while fish dart by in tanks behind them. The effect is eerie, magical: pure noir. The scene in the “Magic Mirror Maze” of a Playland fun house is where we find out who killed whom for what reason. That information is forgettable, unlike the shattering of the images in the multiple self-reflecting mirrors as Mr. and Mrs. Bannister face off with pistols, and two-thirds of a romantic triangle is wiped out.

And the phrase? “Target practice,” as Grisby pronounces it. It will never sound the same.

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