Long shots make Welles' classic a sure bet Continuous, uninterrupted sequences are hallmarks of the filmmaker's cinematic genius in 1958's 'Touch of Evil,' perhaps the 'Citizen Kane' of B-movies.

October 04, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," which has just been rereleased, has served as something of a cinematic dictionary since its release in 1958. Successive generations of filmmakers have continued to quote the cinematic grammar it created, paying loving homage to its expressionist photographic style, seedy themes and - especially - its famously fluid camera movement.

Of all its delicious elements (Akim Tamiroff at his most menacing and funny; Henry Mancini's throbbing score; powerful cameo appearances from Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes MacCambridge, Dennis Weaver), Welles' pulpy masterpiece (the "Citizen Kane" of B-films?) is probably best known and loved for its unchained camera, which announces itself from the film's opening sequence.

"Touch of Evil" opens on a close-up of a hand setting the timer of a bomb. The camera then pulls up and back to reveal the bomb being planted in a car, a couple entering the car and the car making its way down a serpentine street. Atop a crane, the camera moves in a stately, exhilarating swoop, catching the film's protagonists - Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican narcotics officer, and his new American bride, Susie (Janet Leigh) - as they blithely dodge the doomed automobile. Three minutes and 20 seconds later - the time shown on the timer - the car explodes. The zoom shot that captures the flaming hulk is the first edit of the movie.

Filmgoers flocking to the re-release of "Touch of Evil," which opened at the Charles on Friday, will understandably be enthralled during the opening sequence. In accordance with a memo from Welles that served as a template for the movie's restoration, the image is now unencumbered by the titles that previously obscured it and is accompanied by edgy music emanating from nightclubs and car radios rather than Mancini's score.

But the deserved rhapsodizing about this seminal scene threatens to obscure another, more subtle but far more complex scene in "Touch of Evil" that deserves close attention and a few hosannas of its own. It comes about 30 minutes into the film, when Vargas has joined police officer Hank Quinlan (Welles, in a performance of incomparable heft and desiccation) in his investigation of the bombing. With Susie unsafely ensconced at an isolated motel, Vargas and Quinlan arrive at the apartment of a man named Sanchez, the lover of the bomb-victim's daughter, Marcia. Sanchez and Marcia are with her lawyer when Quinlan and Vargas arrive with two investigators in tow. Now watch. The camera won't leave the room - and the shot won't be broken - for six full minutes, until Vargas leaves to telephone his wife. While he's talking, the camera returns to the room - to note the arrival of crime boss Joe Grandi (Tamiroff) and Quinlan's assistant, Menzies. This will take a minute. When Vargas returns, the camera will still be there, and will continue to follow the action uninterrupted, temporally or visually, for a full eight minutes more.

What we are seeing are three discreet long shots that stand as a tour de force of several cinematic values. As Welles biographer David Thomson put it, the scenes are "less showy than the celebrated titles shot, but far more demanding and far more dramatically important."

Using a "crab dolly," a four-wheeled contraption that moves sideways as well as backward and forward, Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty were able to scuttle the camera in and out of the cramped apartment's corners (notice an especially tight turn within the tiny bathroom). "It was quite a complex shot," Heston recalled in Thomson's book "Rosebud," "with doors having to be pulled, walls having to be pulled aside - very intricate markings, inserts ... and things like that."

The effect is so subtle that at first the viewer doesn't realize that the camera hasn't blinked once. The action it's capturing is so vibrant, so exquisitely choreographed, so full of tension, that the voyeur's persistent presence is barely noted.

To see these scenes again is to marvel at Welles' ingenuity, and at his sensitivity to such values as composition, staging and choreography - important parts of cinematic grammar that are too often ignored these days. Watch as the actors cross in front of each other, receding into the noir background of long shadows, re-emerging from behind the camera. In a gesture of classical purity, the figures often assemble in the foreground into triads, usually with Vargas as their apex, or gather into a crowded, incredibly textured tableaux.

"I think there are fourteen actors who have various parts in that scene," said Walter Murch, the editor who recut "Touch of Evil" according to the Welles memo. "And it involved very tricky lighting. They lit it to cast long shadows on the walls. And whenever you have that you can't have a misstep. Even the actors who are offscreen can't misstep because it will throw a shadow where you don't want it to be."

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