Thursday 29 July 2021

On Blu-ray and streaming - Shelley Jiang examines Orson Welles' film-making method in TOUCH OF EVIL (USA, 1958)

" a peacock headdress...", Orson Welles
Touch of Evil

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Walter Murch cut the third version of Touch of Evil  on the basis of Welles’ desire for greater crosscutting and sense of simultaneity of events. The frequent cutting certainly achieves this but it still doesn’t account for the most striking aspect of this film: the frenetic cutting and diverse framing within discrete sequences. Welles avoids the reciprocity of the shot-countershot, preferring instead to hold two figures in the same canted view together, or to show an over-the-shoulder angle before a low angle emphasis on the single figure in alternation. Level-angle shooting often reveals meaningful identities in framing but here the canted shots eschew this because of the variety of degrees of their projection and their frequency. In its long shots, the detailed scattering of light and dark is almost mosaic. Overall, this heterogeneity and energetic variation gives the film a feeling of ornateness, with the spirited daring of a B-movie. 

"...figures in the same canted view ..." Welles, Akim Tamiroff, 
Janet Leigh, Touch of Evil

This film is about obliques. When the camera stays low, figures seem pitched from top of the screen to bottom, their triangulation and thrown aspect appearing to us like spillages (like the acid meant for Vargas), grand forms/splashes of gutsy nonchalance, especially when foregrounded figures appear out of focus, as if seeping through. The characteristically noir casting of long slanted streaks of light through windows onto bodies suggests the same (Suzie is twice subjected to the non-consensual spillage of light onto her figure). Welles outs this motif in a shot towards the end of a deck of cards tipped across the table at Tanya’s as Quinlan asks her to read his future. 

Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Touch of Evil

But the obliques are really Quinlan. A single shot in the film often shows a single motion of a figure rolling or reaching towards or away from us. We see this most prominently in action sequences (the first explosion, Vargas hurling Grandi kids in the bar, Uncle Joe's grasping and struggle with Quinlan). Welles brings the visual schema of the film to a climax in ten brilliant seconds of a seesawing oil pump. The balance and reciprocity of the back and forth motion of the camera on the hammer-like derrick, so that the camera tracks right as it recedes into the air and then left as it plunges towards us, is a total scandal given the upwardly tilted shots and single direction tracking that otherwise characterises the film. 

The long opening shot/sequence, Janet Leigh
Charlton Heston, Touch of Evil

In this moment of unexpectedly/unusually fluid and counterpoised movement, Quinlan (offscreen) admits openly for the first time to a desire for his wealth to better reflect the extent of his power. We've understood that his underhanded methods and deceptively guileless and idle manner have driven the action, but the shot directly connects Quinlan's will to the calculated camera manoeuvres. Suddenly it's as if the whole film has been refracted through the mechanics of Quinlan's character, the film's swung and swinging forms expressing the vigour of the drive for capital and retribution (giving rise to Quinlan's perverted sense of integrity) underlying Quinlan's (and the film's) brashness, as well as depicting its fallout. When the cards topple at Tanya's, what's also represented are Quinlan's sideways (corner-cutting) lunges at professional influence. The bullish tactic has failed to compensate for the loss of his wife in any more complete and spiritually fulfilling (indeed, direct/straight) way, and so Quinlan, at the peak of his power, has exhausted this gambit (his future is "all used up"). Emerson's claim that "an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man" applies to multiple (noir) aspects of this film. 

Mrs Vargas harassed by 'the handsome young Grandi', 
Touch of Evil

In one of the first scenes with Quinlan and Vargas, Welles positions himself in front of a palm tree, its fronds stood up around him like a peacock headdress. The shaking leaves taunt Vargas as Quinlan suggests that Mrs Vargas may have voluntarily followed the handsome young Grandi who lured her. But the palms, like Quinlan's animus, also appear comically flamboyant and insouciant, suggest the lethargy of a tropical retreat.

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