Touch of Evil (US, 1958)

Welles' dominating mise en scene

Welles' dominating mise en scene

As director of Sight & Sound’s perennial ‘greatest movie of all time’, Citizen Kane, Welles is guaranteed a place in the pantheon of great directors. That film was to prove a millstone around his neck and he may never have fulfilled his promise. However, despite this, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors. Kane is a most audacious debut film, made by an enfant terrible (aged 25) famous for his Mercury Theatre plays and his radio version of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds that convinced some Americans that Martians had landed. However, his satirical edge brought him against newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst. Kane was buried by Hearst’s newspapers’ vitriol, though who is to say if it would have been a box office success any way?

Welles’ follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was butchered by the studio, particularly evident in the banality of the ending. However, as Victor Perkins says the film remains:

‘one of cinema’s glories – an incisive, moving generous and thrillingly accomplished work’. (Perkins, 1999, p. 7)

Three other movies as director followed: Journey Into Fear (1942, uncredited), The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948):

‘The critics, if not the public… gave The Lady from Shanghai a good reception, but the public trailed far behind. This time, the case of Orson Welles was decided. Hollywood had had enough of a genius who in seven years’ time had cost it million of dollars.’ (Bazin, 1978, p. 94-5)

Before leaving Hollywood, Welles made a very cheap production of Macbeth (1948 ) and then embarked on a ten year exile in Europe where he peddled his acting talent to raise money for his films.

From the opening 190 second shot we know Welles is a master of cinema. His Expressionist visual style, evident in Kane (which was the first Hollywood film to shoot ceilings) places the camera in unusual positions and his use of deep focus distorts the space and so characters lurch frighteningly toward the camera or diminish rapidly as they move away. Welles’ Expressonist mise en scene is evident throughout his oeuvre and is ideal for the genre of film noir.

In 1998 Walter Murch supervised the re-editing of the film based upon Welles’ memo written in response to Universal Pictures barring him from post-production. The most obvious change is the opening shot shorn of credits and Mancini’s score. Think of the difficulties involved in choreographing so many events live for the camera.

Andre Bazin (1978 ) Orson Welles: A Critical View (Acrobat)
VF Perkins (1972) Film as Film (Pelican)

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