Orson Welles faced a hard time with Universal in attempt to allow release of the final cut of Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958, USA) although upon release of the director’s cut some years later in 1976 it becomes difficult to understand why. Welles’ edit is dynamic, with a brooding sense of violence throughout it is the ultimate film noir encompassing all that is unique about the genre. It is a story of murder and corruption that takes place on a Mexican border town. Amongst many narrative strands ultimately the plot resides with Vargas, (Charlton Heston) a Mexican cop and his attempt to foil the corruption of American Cop, Quinlan (Orson Welles) whilst he is supposed to be on his honeymoon with new wife Susie (Janet Leigh.) Many other narrative strands and characters come into play throughout, enabling the film to provide melodrama, comedy and crime all wrapped into one neat and cohesive structure.
Welles is known for his use of the low angle shot, A Touch of Evil being no exception. The first of which is shown after the beautiful and iconic long opening take which starts at a high angle, gradually making its way towards mid shots of the characters. This fluidity is immediately interrupted by an explosion, which Vargas and Susie respond to, as does the camera by jolting them out of their own fantasy world encompassed by the first 3 and a half minutes through the fluid camera movement and cuts quite immediately to the pair at low angle, this provides a sense of theatricality, with the focus on the form of the image we are allowed to determine our own connotations as to why the pair may be framed at this angle.
Not only does the use of low camera angles add drama but they also signify the power positions of each of the men throughout. For instance, Quinlan (see below) is first introduced to us in a startling low angle as he gets out of the car and remains within this frame for the remainder of this scene. Although Vargas has previously been framed in a similar manner, as soon as Quinlan shows up he now remains in a mid shot, showing the influence Quinlan has had on the power Vargas was holding. Although Vargas may be a well-respected officer in Mexico now he has crossed the border he is on Quinlan’s turf.
A striking and unusual use of the low angle shot comes from Susie, as the Grande’s are attempting to intimidate her the camera focuses in on a close up of the two characters at a slight low angle whilst Susie towers over the mall man. She is not intimidated by these men, at least in this initial situation surprising an audience used to seeing women (particularly married women) portrayed as weak and incapable.
What struck me the most and remained with me after the viewing of this film was the bold use of music. Scored by Henry Mancini, highly notable works that include ‘Moon River’ theme from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther theme, he discussed Welles’ vision as entirely a selection of source cues (music played through radio, instruments, juke box all within the diegesis) this was an attempt to situate every element of the film in reality rather than being jolted out with unrealistic sound. This I do agree with for the majority, for instance the famous opening sequence of the film showcases a combination of mariachi style bands playing through the bars and clubs on the town strip, along with overhead speakers playing an up to date rock and roll sound. It is immediately understood this is a place of conjoining cultures. However although the music is played together it is not cohesive. Not a hybrid of musical and cultural styles but instead there is an overt overbearing individuality to each of the pieces. However, there are also instances of inconsistency surrounding this vision, although there are many occasions where the music played are source cues, other sequences seem to use the sound from these sections in a more obscure and inappropriate setting. Take for instance the scene in which Quinlan kills Uncle Joe Grande, the Latin American music is played throughout, presumably this is supposed to be coming from the street below, however that does not account for why the music melodramatically reaches crescendo at the pinnacle point of Joe Grande’s death.
Similarly to how the low camera angles provide both drama as well as a more intricate reading of power relations between characters, the music also provides not only this melodrama created within climatic sequences but also helps to define character. Marlene Dietrich’s character Tayna is never once shown without piano music, supposedly from her brothel, being played in the background. This becomes a motif synonymous with her character, even her appearance after the final showdown is overwhelmed by this. The sound of the music resembles her unique quality, it is continental and exotic, neither American nor Latin, as if she is the middle ground between the two parties. Which is not false, as she is the only character who seems to remain objective to the entire situation.
Due to the use of music and specific camera angles each character becomes well defined and characterised throughout the film, the development is astounding. Presumably this is something which was not as definable within the original edit released by Universal in 1958, it is truly a wonder why they would have attempted to cut away such cinematic boldness.