Scene Is Believing: Touch of Evil

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All border towns bring out the worst in a country.” – Vargas

This month Orson Welles’ 1958 classic Touch Of Evil gets the Scene Is Believing treatment as we celebrate that films opening sequence, one of, if not the, greatest continuous tracking shots in cinematic history.

Welles had spent a decade in the Hollywood wilderness, or Europe to you and I. His adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel Badge Of Evil as both writer and director was intended to be a return to form and a three-pronged elevation of a pulpy story to an examination of three frontiers: the run-down Mexican-American border; the way a good detective can be a dirty cop; and a provocative inter-racial relationship, dynamite in the 1950’s. It was provocative because rather than the woman be a Mexican wife as in the book, Charlton Heston dusked down to play Mexican narcotics agent Mike (Miguel) Vargas, honeymooning with white, American apple pie wife Susie (Janet Leigh). The thought of a Mexican deflowering American womanhood was sure to ruffle a few feathers in 1958. It was also radical to have a non-white face be the hero of a film – Welles’ corrupt American detective in the seedy town, Hank Quinlan, is a more complex character, but he is most definitely not the hero.

As the film opens, the camera closes in on a shaky pair of hands setting a home made bomb with a kitchen timer for three minutes or so, roughly the length of time the opening sequence will run. The bomber places it in the boot of a large American open top car. The camera then rises in a crane shot and begins a long, serene tracking shot, following the couple in the car as they slowly wend their way through the vibrant night time throng of the fictional, baroque border town of Los Robles.

The tension of the scene is palpable, contrasting with the stately camera movement, the car stopping and passing by Heston and Leigh several times as they all converge on the border crossing. Street lights are not plentiful, instead cafe and shop windows from within the arched pavement areas cast elongated shadows; rock and roll music plays from somewhere, presumably the car radio. We sense this is a sultry, dangerous, unwholesome environment, beneath the crumbling facade. As the car drives on further and the camera drifts over other aspects, overlapping dialogue and music come into play, a favourite technique of Welles.

Suzie and Vargas walk arm in arm across the border crossing to the American town literally on the other side of the barrier. The young woman in the car complains to the police officer of a ticking in her head. As Vargas pulls Susie in for a kiss (their first on American soil) the car explodes offscreen – a literal and metaphorical detonation in one.

Touch Of Evil’s  audacious 3 minute tracking shot has been emulated several times, most famously by Martin Scorsese in the Restaurant entrance of Goodfellas, and Robert Altman’s opening of  The Player. Welles took a pulpy crime thriller and turned it into a noir classic that subverted studio expectations. As ever, his refusal to compromise meant the film was chopped by the studio, and unappreciated for years, until it was finally recognised as the triumph it truly is. The Blu-Ray from the Masters Of Cinema series is a fitting tribute to this great film.

Originally posted 2013-04-20 16:19:21. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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