Sunday, 4 April 2010

'That wasn't no miss, Vargas. That was just to turn you 'round, so I don't have to shoot you in the back. Unless you'd rather run for it. '

Touch of Evil
Dir. Orson Welles
(Universal Pictures, 1958)

A town by the Mexican-American border, where the film starts with Miguel Vargas, played by NRA legend Charlton Heston, and Janet 'Psycho' Leigh having a night stroll and a kiss interrupted by a car bomb, police corruption, drugging and a few bar fights, Heston doesn't get his girl back until the end of the film. Was Welles playing the corrupt police captain, Quinlan, wanting to denounce his methods for framing his Mexican suspects, is Touch of Evil a political and moral fable? Possibly. Bazin has argued about Welles' cinema of ambiguity, 'in melodrama, one's sympathy is forcibly drawn to the villian'. Really? Welles' Quinlan is pretty repulsive, a corrupt official who gets his just deserve. But then so are the Mexicans, in fact it's hard to empathise with any character. There is ambiguity in Touch of Evil but maybe it's the slightly convoluted plot. Repeated viewing may help.

Repeated viewing is needed as there is much to admire in Welles' work. Russell Metty's photography is astounding. Every frame is meticulous. The barren landscapes of Mexico are beautiful, the car journeys have a dynamism, the low tilt ups in the interiors felt claustrophobic and uneasy, cranking up the tension, accompanied with accomplished internal frames. The image when we're in some police bureau and there are these massive filing cabinets is mesmerising. The prison scene, using the prison bars and shadow is wonderful, Metty really does adhere to the mantra of the camera helping tell the story. Every shot has a symmetry to it, every frame just feels right. Metty adds a wonderful use of depth to the frame, adding layers to it, sometimes your eyes just gaze into the frame – maybe this is why the plot got the better of me. Camera movements are a plenty; tight into say a glass of whisky and then tracking back and panning the whole interior of the room. It's majestic and nauseating at the same time, maybe there are one too many of these wonderful camera movements, but yes, the opening shot defines cinema. Forget Welles, this is a Metty master-class.

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