Day 342: ‘Orson Welles’s Touch of Genius’ 2018

Day 342
Thursday 7 June, 2018    10.53pm
‘Orson Welles’s Touch of Genius’    2018

Touch of Evil  (1958)
An Orson Welles Film

Twenty years ago I went to see the 1998 restoration of this film at the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, Sydney, with my father. Since then, three years after, my Dad had two strokes and after months of rehabilitation had another seventeen years of pretty good health until a few weeks ago, when he suffered a number of minor strokes over a period of a couple of weeks. This time, after a few weeks rehabilitation, he’s back with our family again for our regular weekly catch-up, where he gets to play Grandad to my two girls. And, now, twenty years later, here we sit, together again, watching the 1998 restoration of Orson Welles’ (reconstructed) masterpiece. It’s a lucky thing, or a great privilege, that God has given my father and family these extra years to spend with us. Ironically, he has no memory of the film, of seeing it then, or ever. As happens with these situations where his 87-year old brain doesn’t recall films that I know he’s seen once, if not twice or even more times, I say, “Well, that’s okay. You get to watch it all over again for the first time.”

We had to do a bit of research to know whether to watch the 1.37:1 1998 Restoration or the 1.85:1 Restoration. I googled the answer but couldn’t find out whether or not we’d lose the top and bottom if we watched the 1.85 or whether we’d lose the sides if we watched the 1.37. (Given the year of making – 1957 -) I suspected that Orson Welles would have shot it full frame with 35mm film (a bit of the frame lost for the soundtrack strip), and that because the ratio was fairly new – since the advent of television – he’d have conceived it as a 4:3 (‘Academy’ 1.37:1) film ratio. But I wanted confirmation and Professor Google was not immediately helpful. For a cinema purist it was important to know the difference because I wanted to know what Orson Welles wanted. After all, this reconstruction by Walter Murch, with the help of many people, is an attempt to get the film as close as possible to Welles’s original vision, before anyone started tampering with it. (A 58-page memo that Welles wrote objecting to all of the studio’s tampering with it before it’s initial release was the basis for the restoration. source: Introduction preceding the film)

I suddenly had a thought. What if the British release on Eureka! had an accompanying booklet, like Criterion does so well? And they did, but as I thumbed through it, nothing seemed to jump out at me, to give me any hint. The disc is in the player, we’re running out of time, and I don’t have time to read all the notes. Luckily my thumbs were long enough to take me to the last three pages where a small section was dedicated to explaining why they provided both restoration ratios but the answer was still an incomplete one. It did give me the basic information I needed which was that Welles and his cinematographer Russell Metty shot the film full frame but on the insistence of Paramount also framed it for the manner in which Paramount would distribute the film – at 1.85:1 – into theatres. As to what Welles himself preferred, there was no conclusive answer because Welles and Metty framed each shot with both ratios in mind. As to Welles’ own ratio preference of the first cut he did, we don’t know if he liked one over the other, because up until the final film is completed, ready for release, he would have almost certainly been working with the full-frame of the developed film. Whether the screening for studio executives was 1.85:1 or not, I don’t know, but I suspect it would been. Whether Welles was present is another unknown. (Maybe someone has researched whether that is the case.)

My memory was that when I saw it at the Chauvel Cinema 20-years ago, we watched it 4:3. So, this time, I was intrigued to see what it looked like with the wider frame, which required losing the top and bottom of the image. Metty would have had to ensure that when the screening in cinemas was projected at 1.85:1, that people didn’t get the top of their heads cut off, and that important information, wasn’t lost in the bottom of the frame, for the same reason.

What an experience this was for me. A film containing such different uses of what the director wants to reveal in the frame, depending on the scene, or within the same scene, has never before struck me as so vastly different. Welles uses the frame to its fullest extent, mapping out an intricate use of background and foreground, filling the screen with five or six characters at times, some in close-up, some as a mid-shot, and some deeply recessed into the frame. Then he would have blocked out the actors’ moves, and the camera’s moves, and worked with Metty, the camera operator and the focus-puller to keep specific people or objects in focus, while other people or objects are out of focus. As if that wasn’t extraordinary enough in itself, the choreography of a moving camera and several actors moving around, while have some faces in shadow and others well lit (particularly importantly when they said their lines), he also created photographic compositions which are stunning in their originality and boldness. Whether it is Captain Quinlan and Sergeant Menzies – wearing a wire – walking across the bridge while Vargas wades through the water under the bridge, or the interrogation of Sanchez in a crowded, cramped, apartment, or the strangulation of Grandi, lit with a flashing neon light causing the screen to be almost black, then lit, then black, then lit – Welles and Metty’s genius is singularly evident.

All of those things I’ve just mentioned neglect to mention one other, astonishing, achievement. For a lot of the film Orson Welles was behind the camera and in front of the camera. Every shot he wanted Metty to capture had to be conceived in Welles’ imagination, communicated to Metty and the operator and focus-puller, and then Welles had to step in front of the camera and suddenly transform himself into the fat, ugly, despicably arrogant Captain Quinlan and start giving his performance. To be able to achieve all of those things, which are then filmed in real-time, must requires a brain the size of the great outdoors, having also accepted the thankless (and unpaid) task of turning a potboiler B-grade story into a screenplay, and giving direction to his other actors.

Those things in themselves don’t necessarily add up to a good film, a great film or a bad film. That’s another part of what is required of a director. He/she has to be able to envisage the film and the shots and the pacing of the screenplay and where they wants to edit the start and end of scenes; to know how they want the finished product to unfold. Welles would have had to juggle a hundred decisions every day while principal photography is underway and get them right as well.

As if that is not enough, it takes a special kind of person to have a film that is taken out of his hands, reshot, recut, rescripted and it still makes a damn fine film at 93 minutes or 95 minutes instead of 105 minutes.

[I haven’t even started to talk about the merits of the film, as a film, yet.]

Exhibit A, The Magnificent Ambersons.   Exhibit B, Touch of Evil, even before the 1998 restoration.

This is the 1992 Halliwell entry for Touch of Evil:

“Overpoweringly atmospheric melodrama crammed with Wellesian touches, but very cold and unsympathetic, with rather restrained performances (especially his) and a plot which takes some following. Hardly the most audspicious return to Hollywood for a wanderer, but now becoming a cult classic.”

Scheuer, 1975-76, 95 minutes, ***½, “Absorbing weirdie in the Wellesian manner – he wrote, directed, plays a leading role as a gross copper investigating a murder, kidnapping and assorted felonies down Mexico way… Good for those seeking the unusual.”

Maltin, 1992, ****, “Fantastic, justifiably famous opening shot merely commences stylistic masterpiece, dazzlingly photographed by Russell Metty. Great Latin Rock score by Henry Mancini… Most revival theatres now show Welles’ original 108m. version, discovered in 1976.”