I first saw Citizen Kane in college, during a fantastic class called Film Architecture (one of the best classes I had in college). I’ve seen it several times since then, and while I wouldn’t list Kane as my favorite film of all time, I certainly understand why many consider it to be the greatest film ever made. It is a magnificent piece of work, and seeing Kane instantly made me an enormous fan of Orson Welles. Last month I had the great pleasure to watch two Welles films on DVD, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Touch of Evil — Made in 1958, Touch of Evil was written and directed by Welles, and he has a major role as police Captain Hank Quinlan. In the opening moments of the film, a man places a bomb in a car driving across the Mexican border into the United States. When the bomb goes off on the U.S. side of the border, high-ranking Mexican narcotics official Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (played by, believe it or not, Charlton Heston) and his young American wife (Janet Leigh) quickly get swept up in the investigation and a tangled web of dirty cops, drug dealers, and a lot of other nastiness.
Visually and technically, the film is a masterpiece. The dynamic camerawork is astonishingly inventive for a film made 50 years ago. The movie opens with one of the most famous shots in film history, a long tracking shot (3 minutes and 33 seconds) that starts with a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car and then follows the car’s slow drive down streets and across the border, paralleling Heston & Leigh’s walk across the border. The camera constantly pulls in and out to follow both the car and the couple, making sure the viewer can follow exactly where they are in relation to one another, and charting their progress through a Mexican border-town and across the border. The soundwork here is also magnificent, as we hear an interwoven stream of sound with the levels shifting from moment to moment, allowing us to catch snippets of music from the street, the car’s radio, and Heston and Leigh’s conversation as well as their interactions with various others such as a border guard they pass.
Although that opening shot is the most famous, there is an even longer, more impressive uninterrupted sequence in the middle of the film, in which Welles is interrogating a young Mexican suspect. Over the course of this shot we witness a lengthy interrogation, with characters moving around the house and coming in and out of various rooms. The drama is so good that you might not realize the stunning camera work, but once you realize what is happening the effect is staggering. And it all builds to a dramatic moment where the viewer and Heston come to a shocking realization about Welles’ Captain Quinlan.
But Touch of Evil isn’t notable just for its technical wizardry. It is a relentlessly entertaining film. The story is a tense, taut mystery, with the suspense and anxiety levels kept at a pretty high level from start to finish. Welles steals the show as the sad, corpulent, complicated Captain Quinlan (by the time the film is over, you realize that the movie is really, in many ways, his story), but we shouldn’t overlook Heston’s work. It is sort of silly to see him cast as a Mexican, but this is a star performance by Heston in his prime — he is intense and charismatic, dominating every scene he’s in. Then there is Janet Leigh, who is also a lot of fun as a tough, strong dame who is nonetheless put through a shocking amount of hell over the course of the film. This is an astonishingly grim film for a movie made in 1958!!
Touch of Evil is one of the most powerful American films noir, relentlessly entertaining from that amazing first shot right through to the famous last line (in my humble opinion, an even better last line than the one that ends Casablanca). If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
One final note: Touch of Evil was famously taken away from Orson Welles during the editing stages, and re-edited into a shorter, more linear form by the studio. After screening the film, Welles wrote a 58 page memo to the studio listing everything wrong with their edit, and what he would do to bring the film into line with his original intentions. The memo was ignored, but 10 years ago during the early rise of DVD, a group of filmmakers (including master editer Walter Murch, who worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) recovered Welles’ memo and much of his original footage from the studio vaults and re-edited the film as per Welles’ instructions. That is the version that was released to DVD in 1998, and recently re-released in a phenomenal 50th Anniversary Edition, and that is the only version of the film worth watching.
The Third Man — While not quite as magnificent as Touch of Evil, British director Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man is still a towering work of cinema. American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-war Vienna to stay with his friend Harry Lime. When he arrives at Lime’s hotel, he discovers that his friend has just been killed while crossing the street. What at first seems like a senseless accident soon seems to Martins to be something much more, and the story begins.
The film was shot on location in Vienna, and the real, ruined cityscape gives the film a distinct feel quite dramatically different from all the other films of the time shot on a studio back-lot. Much has also been written about the film’s atmospheric, black and white expressionist cinematography, as well as the unique zither score by Anton Karas, both of which help to give The Third Man its unique identity.
But as with Touch of Evil, none of that would amount to much of anything if the story wasn’t so much fun to watch unfold. The mystery of the life and death of Harry Lime unfolds with fascinating complexity, as Martins learns more and more about his friend, and his questions about his death only multiply. You have to wait quite a long time for Orson Welles to enter the movie, but once he does he is astounding as usual. His monologue to Martins while at the top of Vienna’s famous ferris wheel (the Riesenrand, thank you wikipedia) is just phenomenally good. (This “cuckoo clock” speech is a famous one, and rightfully so.)
It is easy to dismiss old films like these as being slow, stagey, and uninteresting. But after watching these two classics I bet you’ll have a whole new appreciation for the filmmakers of 1958 and 1949. I know I did. Check ’em out!