For many, Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil marks the end of classic Film Noir. It certainly marked the end of Welles’ Hollywood directing career, though it had to wait some forty years before it could finally be seen in a version that was close to his original intentions, especially with regards to the film’s opening sequence. Referenced in films as different as Brian De Palma’s The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge (1991) and In Burges (2008), Welles’ opening long take is one of cinema’s best known sequences and is frequently cited as a model of its kind, though the film to which it belongs seems to have been slightly forgotten .
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom and you should head over there to see the many other selections.
“If you introduce a gun in the opening of the story, make sure that you have used it by the end” – Anton Chekhov, in a letter to a budding writer
“Ever see Touch of Evil? Great Opening shot” – Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) in The Player (1992)
Touch of Evil (1958, Universal International) opens with a sequence made up of a single shot that runs approximately 3 minutes and 20 seconds. It begins with a close-up of a timer being set on a clock attached to some sticks of dynamite and ends with the (off-camera) sound of the bomb exploding. This extraordinary opening, a 200 second sequence shot, is probably the most famous of the many long takes that can be found in all Welles’ Hollywood films. But it didn’t spring unbidden from his head and is in fact a fundamental part of a long tradition with its roots firmly planted in the very origins of cinema. This is a film with a fine pedigree and a complex production history, as with most of Orson Welles’ projects. It is also a fine example of the way this genius director could dynamically sum up the themes of a film in a succinct, flamboyant, truly unforgettable way.
“Long takes – shots that ran to uncommon lengths and did duty for a series of briefer shots.” – David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (1997)
Touch of Evil was the first film that Orson Welles made in Hollywood after an absence of nearly ten years. Charlton Heston, the film’s star and a friend and supporter of Welles, dubbed it “The best B movie ever made”, but it’s much better and deeper than that suggests, and arguably it has been even more influential that Welles’ more celebrated Citizen Kane, especially in its stylistic flourishes such as its deep focus cinematography, overlapping dialogue and particularly in the dynamic quality of its extremely long takes. Between Citizen Kane in 1941 and Macbeth in 1948 Welles was able to complete six feature films, all characterised by the use of unusually long takes, deep focus cinematography, over lapping dialogue, dynamic tracking shots and intricate sound tracks. He then moved to Europe where he had to make do with far fewer resources than had been available to him in America, both financially and technically, and so adopted a whole new style of shooting. For what turned out to be his last chance at directing in Hollywood, Welles’ created a film that stands as the culmination of almost 20 years of bold experimentation within Hollywood Studio System, that most artistically conservative and timid of film-making communities.
Touch of Evil is a film usually described as Film Noir due to its morally ambiguous tone, dark, contrasty cinematography and for its crime story though it also has a strong expressionist and even a Gothic feel to it. It deals with the investigation launched by the DA Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas (played by Charlton Heston in dark make-up) after a businessman is blown up in his car with a couple of sticks of dynamite. The car had just crossed the US-Mexico border (it is typical of the film’s ambiguous and ambivalent tone that for much of the time we are in fact quite unsure as to which side of the border we actually are on), which brings in the subsidiary theme of race relations. This is further emphasised in that Vargas is a Mexican official who has just married Susan, a blonde and very WASP-y yank (the gorgeous Janet Leigh). It eventually becomes clear that Sanchez, the man who has ‘confessed’ to the crime, has been framed by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles), who then starts putting pressure on the DA and his new wife to halt the investigation. The victimisation and kidnapping of the wife is quite nightmarish and still very powerful, making for quite uncomfortable viewing as the poor woman is framed for possession of narcotics and terrorised by hoodlums in league with Quinlan.
Welles got the chance to direct after having already been offered the role of the corrupt cop. This came as a result of the successful relationship with producer Albert Zugmith on a previous Universal movie about race and corruption, Man in the Shadow (for more on that film, which incidentally shares a lot of thematic material with Touch of Evil, see the fine review over at Riding the High Country). It was an adaptation of the Whit Masterson novel (soon to be reviewed here) Badge of Evil, from which it took its main plot and several concepts and ideas but from which it also diverges in several crucial aspects, not least in switching the cultural heritage of the leading characters. One can in fact see traces of Welles’ previous work here, both from Man in the Shadow but also his earlier Universal thriller The Stranger, which also puts a wife between an investigator and his quarry and also deals with issues of racial hatred.
“…the camera swoops and hovers like a kingfisher, inscribing Orson’s signature on every sequence” – Kenneth Tynan in 1961 on Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is much darker than the novel, though this aspect varies depending on which version of the film you see. The film in fact exists in three versions – the one first released in 1958 and which ran 93 minutes, a 108 minute version first made generally available in 1976 (and which includes more of the footage re-shot by Harry Keller after the Studio made demands Welles could not meet) and a 111 minute composite version first shown in 1998 which tries to be as faithful to Welles’ conception and which I would argue is in fact the one really worth celebrating, though many disagree about this, not least because it jettisons Henry Mancini’s opening theme music. The best known version for many years, and the one most widely disseminated on TV and Video, was the second, which was in fact a preview version that Welles had almost but not quite completed and which the studio then ‘amended’. The three versions have a number of significant differences, but they all begin in the same way, its celebrated 200-second single sequence, which Welles initially conceived as a curtain-opener, a pre-credits sequence to set the tone and style of the film to follow. The main difference is that in the third version we finally got to see the opening as intended – not as a title sequence with credits and a theme tune, but as prelude to the film that follows. For a full accounting on the variences, see Lawrence French’s detailed analysis over at the late Wellesnet site here.
“The opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil was six and a half minutes long … well, three or four anyways. He set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot.” – Walter Stuckel (played by Fred Ward) during The Player’s opening eight minute shot.
This is probably the most remarked upon aspect of the film, although in many ways it was not unique. A number of earlier films also began with long takes, such as Reuben Mamoulian’s 1932 film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, while a number of earlier films had takes that ran for considerably longer. One major Hollywood film even went so far as to experiment with the notion that by being shot entirely from the POV of one character it was made up (theoretically) of one long tracking shot (Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film of Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake). Academic research by the likes of Barry Salt and David Bordwell has shown that during the 1930s and 1940s, the average shot length of a Hollywood film was between 6 and 12 seconds. It is not however the longest take in the film – indeed, the most subtle use of the technique belongs to the extraordinary sequence in which Quinlain and Vargas move in the house of the main suspect in the bombing – as they question the suspect Vargas knocks over an empty box in the bathroom, but Quinlan later claims to have found the dynamite in it. Vargas knows it’s a set-up and will spend the rest of the film trying to prove it.
Beyond its extraordinary technique, the film broke new ground in its exploration of racial tensions on the Mexican border and also features several eye-catching performances from the likes of Marlena Dietrich, who as Tana gets most of the quotable dialogue (she reads Quinlan’s fortune and tells him, “You’re future’s all used up”) and the famous “Some kind of man” last line, while Akim Tamiroff as the local gangster is both genuinely funny and truly creepy and gets one hell of a send off in a truly baroque murder sequence. Then there is Dennis Weaver as the peculiar manager of a motel so seedy the Bates’ might want to take over. This is not a film for everyone, its genuinely dark and impressionistic atmosphere, recreating Mexico in the Venice area of LA, conveysm a heightened sense of jeopardy and sexual tension that very few films of the era can match. But it also has a lot of heart, though it is typical that the real love story, as explained in the concluding scene, is not between Vargas and his sexy new bride, but rather between the gross and corrupt Quinlan and his loyal colleague and best-friend Menzies, played beautifully by Joseph Calleia in a performance that should have got the Oscar that year (he didn’t even get a nomination).
Video Availability: All three version of the film are available on DVD and in the UK on Blu-ray too. The Blu-ray offers an improved image transfer and also the opportunity to watch either in widescreen or full frame – the latter is usually the most effective. All these packages offer separate audio commentaries for each version of the film – the best is undoubtedly the one found on the 1970s version by expert critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, for this blogger the two most foremost authorities on Welles.