Film noir loves San Francisco. So what happens when you add Orson Welles to the love match?

First, his character Michael O’Hara refers to our fair city as “Frisco.” Oh no you didn’t, Lady from Shanghai.

In a story that only becomes more convoluted as events unfold, sailor Michael follows Mrs. Bannister (a blonde Rita Hayworth) across the sea with her husband to, eventually, San Francisco. Mr. Grigsby, Mr. Bannister’s criminal law partner, offers Michael $5K to pretend to kill him (Mr. Grigsby). It only gets more confusing from that point on, so it’s best to stop explaining right there. Oh, and there’s something between Mrs. Bannister and Michael. Except, you know, it’s a film noir, and no hot bombshell is to be trusted.

Especially a foreigner by way of China. She’s not a San Franciscan at heart–she revels in playing the outsider, whether it’s to her own marriage or in class subterfuge as her romance between her and Michael develops. So is this movie ultimately about San Francisco? No.

Then again, who could say what this movie is ultimately about? Beautiful shots and a muddled plot, sure. Don’t expect any typical San Francisco images though. In the city, schemes unravel and characters must face justice. Chinatown serves as a harried refuge from the rest of the world, an outside enclave within the city. Even here, though, Mrs. Bannister doesn’t fit in despite her knowledge of Cantonese and Mandarin. Plop her in an audience for Chinese theater, and it’s not hard to point out her platinum locks.

To “shanghai” originally means to dupe someone (usually though alcohol) to join a ship as crew. The Bannisters, in a sense, shanghai Michael for their purposes. In later uses, “shanghai” comes to mean a a general action of appropriating or hijacking. Welles shanghais San Francisco as a pillar of justice, where the innocent may go to trial but the guilty get their just desserts. Outsider or not, the city does not discriminate but instead traps those who are try to run away.

The Lady from Shanghai is available on Netflix (instant too) and Amazon.

Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a locally set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at christine@sfappeal.com.

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  • kmsinsf

    I think its ok to say Frisco if it was in 1947. The ban began in 1990. Old timey sayings are ok, as are people over 60 (say, if they are speaking of fond memories of “frisco” during the time they were stationed here in the Navy).