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T&T BACKSTORY #3: THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

In the first Hector Lassiter novel, Head Games, Hector visited his old friend Orson Welles on the set of Welles’ noir classic Touch of Evil. It was noted in Head Games (set in 1957) that Hector owed Orson a favor connected to something that happened between them ten years earlier.

Toros & Torsos reveals what went down between the two a decade before — specifically, in January 1947 on and around the set of Welles’ other noir epic, The Lady From Shanghai, co-starring Welles’ soon-to-be ex-wife, Rita Hayworth.

As noir czar Eddie Muller describes in his excellent Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Welles based his film on “If I Die Before I Wake, a small-scale potboiler by Sherwood King, turning it into an immensely complex, globe-trotting affair.”

A key confrontation in Welles’ heady film takes place in a twisted fun house designed by Welles that incorporates severed limbs and mutilated faces — imagery echoing, or perhaps anticipating, the mutilations performed on Elizabeth Short, the so-called “Black Dahlia” in Los Angeles in January 1947.

Welles, an avid magician, used to perform an elaborate magic act (which included sawing a woman in half) on virtually the same spot where Betty Short’s severed torso was found. That macabre fact, coupled with reports Betty Short was “involved” with a man named George (Welles’ given name), that eerie funhouse movie set, and some mysterious filming delays around the time of the Black Dahlia murder led one True Crime author to put Welles forward as a Black Dahlia murder suspect in a recent book…a scenario explored in the Hollywood portion of Toros & Torsos.

By anyone’s standards, Welles’ film’s production was a tortured one. Apart from the friction between Orson and Rita, cast members were frequently ill as production shifted between Mexico and the U.S. and back again. Welles’ decision to cut and color Rita’s trademark hair, as well as his labyrinthine plot, confused and alienated Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, who ultimately took the film away from Welles.

As Eddie Muller notes, associate producer William Castle presciently wrote in his diary, “Cloudy and heat oppressive. First day of shooting on Lady From Shanghai. The darks clouds seemed like an omen…”

Next: HEMINGWAY AND DOS PASSOS