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Cinematic Vocabulary – Opening Scene of Touch of Evil (1958)

March 9, 2009

Write enough reviews and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of films as discrete cultural units.  Artefacts cut asunder from the rest of the world and presented to the audience in a neat little package.  Thinking of films in these terms tends to lead one to focus upon macroscopic issues such as plot, performance and theme whilst ignoring the fine-grained details of the film such as the cinematography, the sound editing and the techniques used to convey those plots and themes.  In an attempt to wean myself away from thinking of films as discrete cultural artefacts, I have decided to write a series of pieces that focus on individual scenes from a critical perspective.  My own take on the Anatomy of a Scene series if you will.

The first scene to go under the microscope is the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

French Film Poster

French Film Poster

Touch of Evil was intended to be Welles’ return to mainstream Hollywood film-making after a decade spent in Europe.  The shine on his wunderkind reputation having faded in the 17 years since Citizen Kane (1941), Welles set about reminding Hollywood of his skills as a writer/director by taking on the weakest script he could find and turning it into a work of considerable power.  However, this triumphant return to Hollywood was hampered by the fact that the studio hates Welles’ final version of the film and re-cut the film before bringing in a second director and reshooting a number of scenes.  In response, Welles wrote a 58-page memo to the studio detailing the changes he thought were needed.  A version of the film based upon this memo was released, but not until 1998, 14 years after Welles’ death.

One of the most notable differences between the early versions and the 1998 memo-based version was that the early versions of the film ran credits over the film’s 3 minute and 30 second long opening take.  The early versions also decided to run Henry Mancini’s (admittedly excellent) score over the scene instead of Welles’ intended layered sounds of duelling radios and street noise.

The most obvious characteristic of the scene is its incredible tension.  In the opening seconds of the scene we see a shadowy figure placing a time bomb in the car’s trunk.  We know that the bomb will go off sooner rather than later and so every time the car drifts back into shot, we expect an explosion.  Welles brilliantly feeds this sense of tension by having the car stop at a crossing, then drive slowly past Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston before stopping again and again for goats, handcarts and customs officials.  It is only when the car exits the scene that it explodes. Off-screen.  Robbing us of the expected mid-street effects shot.

This long take shows Welles at his most aggressively brilliant.  Aside from the pacing and framing that perfectly ratchet up the growing sense of impending doom, Welles plays games with our expectations.  As the shadowy bomber makes his way to the car the camera follows him, shaking as it goes suggesting the kind of subjective POV shot you get from a hand-held camera.  But then the camera bounds into the sky and begins to glide slowly and serenely above the decaying but vibrant streets.  This use of a crane shot is reminiscent of the closing scene of Citizen Kane, there too it was used to gain a wide-angled impression of a complex thing; in Touch of Evil it is the border town, in Citizen Kane it was the extent of Kane’s madness and his desperate attempts to fill the void left by the childhood and simple life he was deprived of.

Another reason to adore this scene is that it tells you about the world the film inhabits.  The border town’s architecture hints at a long-gone age of grand city planning and civic ambition.  The vaulted pavements of the border town are utterly at odds with the fly-blown shacks and old churches so beloved of the directors of Westerns.  To the extent that the border town resembles anything else, it is the medieval parts of Bern, the capital of Switzerland.  Also worth noting is the lighting.  Less obvious in the above clip from the original release of the film, the town does not have many street lights and yet is full of light and incredibly long shadows.  The kind of shadows that seem entirely appropriate for a film noir such as Touch of Evil.

Less abstractly, the scene perfectly juxtaposes the huge American cars of the 1950s with the handcarts and goat herds of the Mexican locals.  The two inhabit the same world and the ramshackle nature of the border post (more concerned with greeting local celebrities than thinking of security or policing the flow of immigration) speaks of a border between America and Mexico that is entirely permeable.  Regardless of which side of the border the characters stand on, they are in the same world of long shadows, faded greatness and duelling radio stations.

While one might excuse the studio for its decision to play the credits over the opening scene, it is completely unforgivable that they decided to do away with Welles’ sound-scape.  From the first moments of the scene we are treated to rock and roll pouring from an unseen radio.  As the car drives through the town and the camera’s focus shifts to different things, this soundtrack changes between different radio stations, different songs, different types of music.  The layering of different sounds is one of Welles’ better known techniques.

In this scene from Touch of Evil, Welles has several conversations going on at once.  This is a radical departure from both cinematic and theatrical norms where even crowd scenes tend to work on the assumption that the audience can only pay attention to one line of conversation at a time.  In a tip of the hat to naturalistic dialogue, Welles shattered this convention in the very first scene he appeared in in his very first film.

Just as Welles’ use of layered dialogue conveyed energy, disagreement and activity, the same can be said for Welles’ carefully constructed sound-scape.  In addition to the street sounds and the few lines of dialogue, Welles presents us with a melting pot.  Where the originally released version of the film came with one tune and one theme, Welles’ version of the scene features different types of music from different radio stations from different countries all competing for our attention.  This layered soundtrack speaks to us of a place where national boundaries are purely academic; where different types of people from different cultures and with different aspirations rub up against each other and compete for prominence.  Without saying a word, Welles escorts us to a corner of the world that is nothing short of a melting pot.  The use of this technique to convey a sense of place and time will be familiar to SF fans for its use in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997), in a long (though admittedly CGI) take, Zemeckis pans the camera backwards from the cluttered airwaves of 20th Century Earth, back through time and the waves of broadcast information until we reach a point of deafening silence.  Just as Welles’ use of sound tells us who his characters are and what world they inhabit, so too does Zemeckis; driving home not only how vast the universe is but also how short human life-spans seem when measured against the vast expanses between solar systems.

As an example of not only technical brilliance, this long take is also a masterclass in cinematic story-telling.  Yes, the scene’s few lines of dialogue serve to introduce us to two of the main characters, but the rest of the scene lets us know what kind of film we’re in for and what kind of place the film is about.  The clashing radio stations not only pre-empt Welles’ use of layered dialogue, they also foreshadow the film’s central conflict between a young, cosmopolitan and idealistic Mexican law enforcer and an old, provincial and corrupt local cop.  As an exemplar of how much information a skilled filmmaker can pack into a 3 minute and 30 second-long take, I think this scene is a perfect example of the importance of looking at film not as one unit but as a collection of smaller scenes and ideas, each with their own individual beauty.

4 Comments
  1. March 10, 2009 1:32 pm

    The Mancini theme is great, though, isn’t it? It’s greatness is kind of cheesy, of course; but to my mind that adds rather than detracts (a similar case can be made for the cheesy Chandleresque voiceovered Blade Runner as against the classier but slightly duller director’s cut).

    The clip of the opening used in In Bruges has the Mancini music. Hard to imagine it working without, actually, in that context.

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  2. March 10, 2009 3:50 pm

    I think it’s easy to fall into the simple artistic morality of director = good, studio = bad. Especially regarding a director as gifted and as scorned by Hollywood as Welles.

    I think that a case can probably be made for either version of the scene. The technical brilliance of the Welles vs. the perfectly theme-setting moodiness of the version with the Mancini theme; it’s not an easy choice.

    Having watched the film recently, I’m definitely of the opinion that even the recut 1998 edition of the film is problematic. The film is constructed in such a way that the emotional meat of the piece is always off-centre. So while the meat of the film is clearly in the confrontation between Vargas and the Detective, our attention is overshadowed by the stuff involving the wife and the Grandi clan. I think there’s a narrative problem there and I can completely sympathise with why the studio would want to fiddle with it. Especially as it is a film that is very nearly there.

    Were Touch of Evil to be made now you’d have De Niro and Pacino playing the central parts and the sub-plots would be kept in line so that the two stars could slug it out in Oscar-baiting style.

    Touch of Evil never quite fits into that template and I’m not sure if that’s by design or not. But if that different approach is there by design I’m not sure what effect Welles was chasing after.

    I find Touch of Evil quite a frustrating watch, but you are quite correct that, as great as Welles’ version of the opening is, it’s not completely obvious that it works better in the context of the wider film.

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  3. March 11, 2009 2:10 pm

    I agree, Jonathan. And thanks for not picking me up on typing ‘it’s’ when I meant ‘its’. Sloppy.

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