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Hello, My Name Is
Orson Welles liked to reuse certain elements throughout his films. He liked a good deep focus shot. He liked low key lighting. He liked the grotesque side of life, blocking actors in groups of three, low camera angles and especially pointy bras. He also liked to open his movies in a certain predictable way. In Citizen Kane, he used the announcer in “News on the March” to introduce the subject and main character, Charles Foster Kane. In The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles himself dubs the voice-over which introduces the life and environment of the Amberson family. The Irish Welles serves as a story teller in the beginning of Lady from Shanghai, recalling the beginnings of his plight and giving insight into his character. Welles reads the enigmatic parable, serving as the basis of Kafka?s work, The Trial.
However, in Touch of Evil, the viewer can not hear the booming instruction of an announcer, nor is the primary character revealed or the plot introduced by a Wellesian voice over. In Touch of Evil, Welles parts with his usual opening style in favor of a much more dramatic method of introduction; this creates a less obvious, yet more intimate initial interaction between the characters on the screen and the viewer in the seat.
Foremost, Welles?s legendary long shot opens the film. These three minutes and twenty seconds have many effects upon the viewer in introducing this movie. The primary purpose of this shot is to slowly draw the viewer in to the story by limiting the viewer?s role in the film; he doesn?t allow the viewer to actively enter the world of the film. Rather, he constrains the viewer to simply observe the actions presented without allowing the viewer to get involved in the action. After the initial focus on the time bomb and its intrinsic importance to the plot, the camera moves away from the action. At the same point, Mancini?s score begins, providing intrigue and promoting the viewer?s interest in the scenes revealed while, through the rhythmic ticking of the bongos, also supplies a constant reminder of the ticking time-bomb waiting to explode. Stepping back, the camera reveals the wider picture of the town; just as an establishing shot serves to orient the viewer without displaying any intimate action, Welles?s camera then begins to introduce the setting to the viewer. However, Welles limits the viewer?s interaction by not involving the viewer in any specific action. Rather, the focus of attention shifts continually between different points of interest. First, the focus is the doomed car driving pulling out of the parking lot, then driving down the street. Then attention shifts to the other activity on the street, then back to the car, and then on the entrance of Mr. and Mrs. Vargas. Until the end of the scene, the Vargases and Linnaker?s car battle for attention as they continually pass each other within the camera?s view. This shifting of focus keeps the viewer just that: an observer looking into this world through the camera. Welles also reinforces this feeling by raising the camera to unhuman points of view above the action. It eliminates any initial intimacy the viewer could form with the characters. Therefore, the viewer gets a broad overview of the town, the atmosphere, and the people before gradually entering this world.
Welles first invites the viewer into the scene as the camera finally returns to a human point of view at the border checkpoint. This change, not by coincidence, comes with the first words spoken in the film. Welles uses these two factors to humanize the camera and draw the viewer into this interaction between the Vargases and the border guard. However, the view remains imperfect for a human participant in the scene. The floating movement of the camera, a left over attribute from the beginning of the shot, remains to remind the viewer that he is not yet totally immersed in the action. Then, with a dolly into the kissing couple, Welles gains some intimacy between the viewer and the characters. However, still just an outside observer, it takes the violent explosion to suddenly snap the viewer into the story. With the first cut of the film, Welles shocks the viewer into entering this reality.
With the subsequent low angle, hand held tracking shot along the ground, Welles finally changes the viewpoint of the film. The high amount of energy in the shot, as opposed to the previous dream-like sequence, energizes the viewer, drawing him into the action. The shaky style of the hand-held camera lends a feeling of reality, as associated with documentary style filmmaking. This energetic reality finally allows the viewer to feel a connection with the action, quickly becoming the viewer?s temporary reality for the next two hours.
By withholding the story from the viewer, only to suddenly thrust the viewer into the action heightens the excitement of this initial incident. However, through the movie, Welles reveals the irony of this carefully constructed opening sequence. With the all the excitement created by these techniques, the viewer expects that the explosion will be the basis of film?s plot. However, Welles makes it eventually apparent that the search for the bomber serves as a mere foundation for the true plot of the film: the exploration of Quinlan?s character and his downfall at Vargas?s hands.
Just as he jolts the initial action, Welles also creates atmosphere by shocking the viewer?s sensations. The first shot uses a truck mounted crane to smoothly glide through the air, traveling through the city raising and lowering swiftly from an obviously unnatural point of view. The camera focuses on various aspects of the scene, shifting attention like a stream of conscience exploration of the setting. Welles lights the buildings and characters relatively brightly. This production method gives the shot a dream-like quality; what the viewer is witnessing isn?t a reality, but rather an illusion of a reality which Welles soon reveals.
With the explosion, the dream instantly transforms into the nightmare that Welles intended to create in this film. The Vargas?s leisurely stroll through the town turns to chaos as the townspeople erupt in a frantic effort to reach the burning car; actors seemingly run in circles around Vargas just to emphasize this commotion. Mancini?s mysterious bongos have been replaced with sound effects of burning wreckage, screaming Mexicans and eventually wailing sirens. The gentle high-angle floating crane turns to a jarring low angle hand-held run. The formerly bright lit buildings suddenly turn to darkness and shadows envelop the characters as the run toward the fire. In addition, Welles uses the brightness of the fire and the darkness of the night sky to create the typical high contrast shooting style of film-noir.
Welles also establishes many of the film?s basic thematic elements through this sequence of shots. First, he introduces the relationship between the Mexican and American border towns. The visual lack of security and laxity with which the Vargases cross the border indicate the close relationship between the neighboring towns. Even despite the lunatic ranting of Linnaker?s date, they too are allowed to cross the border. The casual relationship between the towns on either side of the border quickly becomes apparent, yet also a point of controversy. Indications such as the “Welcome Stranger” sign under which Vargas soon stands show the surface friendliness, yet also reveal the sarcastic element of racism that will appear.
Similarly, these opening shots introduce the forbidden relationships that develop in the border situation. Specifically, Welles briefly investigates two couples, neither of which appear entirely acceptable. Foremost, Mike and Suzy Vargas appear as the first couple in the film. They walk down the street, with his arm around her, an apparently healthy couple. However, the first indications of a problem arise when they reach the border station. The border guard can not accept that the American blond beauty is in fact married to a Mexican. When she corrects him with “Mrs.,” he retorts with confusion and the brief question “what?” Then when Mike mentions that he?s “on the trail of a chocolate soda for my wife,” the guard once again questions in disbelief, “Your wife?”
Though not as obvious, Welles also dooms the relationship between Linnaker and his date, the stripper. By knowing his name and by his quick passage across the border, the border guards reveal Linnaker?s apparent status in the town. Linnaker?s reputation appears nearly as impressive as that of Vargas, to whom the guards also knew and also granted easy passage. In comparison, Zita appears not only dumb, but insane with her rantings of the ticking sound in her head. This forbidden couple, flawed by this apparent personality and status clash, is doomed by a ticking time-bomb in the trunk; not only will this relationship not work, the viewer knows that it won?t even matter as they?re about to become “strainable.”
Rarely in a film does a director pack so much insight into his movie than Orson Welles does in the beginning three shots of Touch of Evil. With minimal dialogue and mostly visual elements, he clues the viewer into so many aspects of the film. In a very unwellesian way, Welles manages to introduce the setting, the characters and some of the thematic elements which will later become apparent. However, although film critics may tag Welles?s methods in the beginning of this movie as “unwellesian,” it nevertheless awes the viewer with its splendor. And what is more “Wellesian” than awesome splendor?
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