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Monday March 27th 2023

The Lady From Shanghai | 1947

The Lady From Shanghai filming location: Sun Sing Center, Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco
The Lady From Shanghai location: Michael O'Hara hides out in the Chinese opera: Sun Sing Center, Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco

A critical and financial failure at the time, Orson Welles’s wildly impressionist take on the film noir has predictably gone on to achieve classic status.

The opening second-unit shots set the scene as Manhattan, but the meeting of fruitily Oirish seaman Michael O’Hara (Welles) and blondified femme fatale Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) during a carriage ride through ‘Central Park’ was filmed at the studio in Hollywood.

Elsa invites Michael to work on her husband’s yacht travelling from New York to the West Coast via the Panama Canal but, strangely, it’s her husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, who finally persuades Michael aboard.

The scenes aboard the ominously-named Circe were filmed on the Zaca, the yacht belonging to Errol Flynn, who was present throughout and who, it’s claimed, can be glimpsed in the film.

The producers, horrified by the effect of Welles’s offbeat stylisation on the film’s box-office prospects, insisted that plenty of beauty shots of Rita Hayworth being inserted.

The Lady From Shanghai filming location: Morro Rock, Morro Beach, California
The Lady From Shanghai location: Elsa Bannister dives into the sea: Morro Rock, Morro Beach, California | Photograph: Wikimedia / Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)

Consequently, the star is seen sunning herself on, and diving into the sea from, Morro Rock, a volcanic mound at the end of Morro Rock Beach, Morro Bay, northwest of San Luis Obispo on the southern California coast.

The strange dynamics aboard the yacht, with Elsa and Michael barely bothering to hide their mutual attraction from Bannister, get even more complicated with the arrival of Bannister’s creepy business partner Grisby (Glenn Anders) and the revelation that one of the crew is a private investigator hired to keep an eye on Elsa.

Grisby offers Michael $5000 to kill him as they arrive at Acapulco, on the coast of Mexico.

Although one of Mexico's oldest beach resorts, Acapulco was yet to achieve the level of fame it attained in the Fifties and Sixties when it became the playground of millionaires and movie stars.

From a population of 5,000 or so in the 1940s, this had rocketed to 50,000 by the early 1960s. The luxurious circular hotel overlooking the Bay is clearly a matte painting, but it’s based on what was the new Casablanca Hotel on Ave Pinzona, Las Playas, overlooking the west side of Acapulco Bay.

As the resort expanded, this area has become Old Acapulco and the building, which had become decrepit, has been restored and redeveloped as condos.

Reaching its destination of San Francisco, the Circe drops anchor at Sausalito, on the east coast of the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge from the city.

The ramshackle-looking waterfront bar herewith its network of wooden jetties and steps, where Michael considers taking up Grisby’s offer and using the money to disappear with Elsa, was Sally Stanford’s Walhalla.

Astonishingly this went on to survive for many years, first being taken over by the Chart House chain before becoming Antidote, then reverting for a time to its original name of Valhalla, before becoming Gaylord India and finally closing its doors for good in 2008.

It stood at 201 Bridgeway, Sausalito, on the waterfront at the far east end of Main Street. Although the structure remains recognisable, it’s suffered the same fate as the Casablanca, living on as condos.

Elsa arranges to meet up with Michael away from prying eyes in the old 1923 Steinhart Aquarium, part of the California Academy of Sciences, which stood on Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park.

Damaged in the 1989 earthquake, the aquarium building couldn't be properly retrofitted to survive another shake and it’s been replaced by a brand new, state-of-the-art Steinhart Aquarium which opened in 2008, designed by architect Renzo Piano.

Although the location was real, Welles chooses to enlarge some background shots to create a surreal environment of giant sea creatures, echoing his prophetic story of blood-frenzied sharks devouring each other.

The Lady From Shanghai filming location: Mason Street at Sacramento, Nob Hill, San Francisco
The Lady From Shanghai location: Elsa drives through the city, past the Brocklebank Apartments: Mason Street at Sacramento, Nob Hill, San Francisco

The twists and turns of the plot see the fake murder of Grisby becoming a real murder, with the befuddled Michael set up as the fall guy. His self-mocking narration wonders how he got himself into this mess, as Elsa is seen driving through San Francisco, up Sacramento Street and into Mason Street past the entrance to the Brocklebank Apartments. A few years later, the Brocklebank would be home to another dangerously deceptive blonde in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

The courtroom in which Michael has no option but to be defended by Elsa’s vengeful husband, is San Francisco’s old Hall of Justice, the exterior of which which you can glimpse when Michael, avoiding the inevitable guilty verdict, makes a desperate dash for freedom.

It stood at 750 Kearny Street, a site now occupied by the clumsily named Hilton San Francisco Financial District. Portsmouth Square, the gardens opposite through which Michael flees, has now been developed into Portsmouth Square Plaza.

The Hilton, by the way, used to be the Holiday Inn at Chinatown, the hotel with the rooftop pool where Scorpio's first victim is shot at the beginning of Dirty Harry.

The Lady From Shanghai filming location: Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco
The Lady From Shanghai location: Michael flees from the courtroom: Sing Chong Building, Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco

Portsmouth Square leads Michael to Grant Avenue, the colourful and bustling main artery of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Most of the area’s extravagant architecture has been preserved so there’s lots you’ll recognise as the panicking fugitive makes his way through the unfamiliar markets, pausing at the junction of Grant Avenue and Pine Street with the unmistakable Sing Fat and Sing Chong Buildings in the background.

These landmarks are not quite so authentically Chinese as they’d have you think. Designed in a fancifully Americanised version of the Far East by a Scots architect in 1907, they were part of the city’s regeneration after the disastrous 1906 quake.

The Lady From Shanghai filming location: Li Po Cocktail Bar, Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco
The Lady From Shanghai location: Elsa asks for information: Li Po Cocktail Bar, Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco

Rita Hayworth seems not to have made it to the Grant Avenue shoot – her shots are filmed using back projection. When she stops to ask for information (she has worked in Shanghai of course), you can see the unmistakable ‘circular’ entrance to the venerable Li Po Cocktail Bar, 916 Grant Avenue, behind her.

Michael hides out in the audience for a Chinese opera production in the Mandarin Theatre, 1021 Grant Avenue.

The Mandarin went on the become the Sun Sing Theatre, before being gutted and redeveloped as the Sun Sing Center store. The store itself is now (September 2017) closed and shuttered, but the colourful canopy remains.

Michael realises who the real murderer is but succumbs to the pills he swallowed to escape the courthouse. He's spirited away before the cops can find him, waking up in the deserted, off-season Playland Amusement Park, a popular attraction which stood on San Francisco’s west shore north of Golden Gate Park.

The exterior shots are real but the wild interior of the Crazy House and the Magic Mirror Maze were created in the old Columbia Studios, which live on as the Sunset-Gower Studios, 1438 North Gower Street in Hollywood.

The amusement park is long gone. The final scene of Michael walking away from the carnage toward the sea was filmed at what is now the far end of Cabrillo Avenue at Great Highway.