May 13, 2011

Touch of Evil

This week I showed two Orson Welles classics to my students: Citizen Kane (1941) and Touch of Evil (1958). I learned more than I ever dreamed I would about Welles and his career. He caused a sensation in the New York theater world when he produced Macbeth but set it in Haiti, and of course when he broadcast a radio version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds and scared the bejesus out of America.

Welles was brought to Hollywood soon after, even though he'd never made a motion picture before, and the legendary Citizen Kane was born. Kane is a thinly veiled biography of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and a film that was nearly doomed to a life on the cutting room floor because Hearst did not want it to see the light of day. The American Film Institute voted it the number one American picture of all time. It's certainly innovative. The cinematography is unlike most of the movies you'll see before 1941. However, after watching both Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil virtually back to back, I must say I like Touch of Evil better. It's a nightmarish looking film noir set in a sleazy border town, with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican narcotics cop (!) who gets in the crossfires of a corrupt Texas police chief (played by Welles).

The movie is outlandish and offbeat: it pulsates with a wonderfully lucid rhythm that makes it still fresh despite its age and some of the corny dialogue. Janet Leigh co-stars as Heston's wife, who spends a terrifying night in a rural motel that foreshadows her experience in Psycho two years later. The film boasts one of the most famous opening shots in movie history. Cinematographer Russell Metty used an incredibly long tracking shot to show us a stick of dynamite being placed into the trunk of a convertible, then letting us watch as the car's owner gets in, drives off, and eventually is killed in the impending explosion. That suspenseful, almost voyeuristic feel never leaves the movie, and you spend the rest of Touch of Evil as a complicit audience member rather than a passive one.

Henry Mancini's Latin-enthused score drifts through the picture giving you the feel that you're wandering through a busy city--lit up with neon--at midnight. Smoky bars with moody music seeping out into the twilight. The seedy underbelly of the film noir world at its darkest most irresistibly enthralling (and the genre was on its way out by 1958). Alas, Touch of Evil was taken away from Welles and dramatically re-edited, then released as a B-grade thriller. It made very little money, but after being restructured to fit Welles's original vision, it has become something of a classic, one that is more exciting, more twisted, and more unhinged than the magnificent Citizen Kane.

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