Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

TOUCH OF EVIL AND THE RADICAL MR.WELLES

Orson Welles was always a radical.  From his days with the Mercury Theater to his stint writing editorials for The New York Post in the mid 1940s, Welles espoused a love for Bolshevism and a desire to promote the personage of Joseph Stalin.  Yet along with such political naiveté came some of the greatest cinematic works of the last century.  For Welles was also an artistic radical, stretching tortuously the conventions of film art and creating a new way to look at movies and movie making.  At the same time it should be pointed out, he never actually invented anything.  He was not the first to use wide-angle lenses, nor was he the first to shoot from extremely low camera positions (making it necessary to build sets with ceilings).  Neither was he the pioneer in overlapping dialogue, or deep focus photography.  He was, however, the director who brought all these tricks and more to their fullest expression and prominence in films such as CITIZEN KANE (1941) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).  Nevertheless, he had the Hollywood power brokers  wondering, “What is it with this guy?”  They would ask this question more and more as Welles’s career continued and after KANE they would rarely let him complete his films as he desired.  Some of these pictures like AMBERSONS, would be re-edited by the bosses, and almost mutilated in the process.  He was a genius, quite obviously, but a mad one thought the studio heads, who never appreciated what he was trying to accomplish.  Eventually he would be relegated to grade “B” studios, like Republic, where he would be forced to work with impossibly low budgets.  But this was the magical Orson Welles, and he was destined to create more masterpieces.  One of these films would become known as the “greatest “B” picture ever made”. 

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) represented an ever-increasing strangeness in Welles’s films.  The camera angles were more extreme, the wide-angle lenses shorter than ever, the tracking and crane shots were longer and more elaborate than anything he had ever attempted in the past.  Even the acting was enhanced with a level of freakiness unmatched before or since.  This maddening, twisted film involves a Mexican Detective named Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston!) and his beautiful American wife, Susy (Janet Leigh).  While honeymooning in Mexico, they witness the assassination of American oil tycoon Rudy Linnaker and his much younger girlfriend.  Los Robles is the mother of all sleazy border towns and the American side is just as putrid.  Throughout the film we are never quite certain on which side of the border the action is taking place.  This is the intent of the filmmakers.  We know the bomb was placed in Linnaker’s car on the Mexican side and that he and his hotsy totsy girlfriend blow up just across the border in the United States.  Vargas and his new bride are crossing the border on foot when the car explodes.  This much is certain.  From there on, the exact geography of the film gets rather dicey. 

Bloated, corrupt, racist American Cop Hank Quinlan (Welles, in a spectacularly pungent performance), frames a young Mexican man for the double murders, but Vargas is on to him.  With the help of Mexican gangster Joe Grande (Akim Tamiroff) Quinlan implicates Susy in a drug crime to get Vargas off his back.  He doesn’t stop there-he can’t.  Quinlan’s massive girth is like a boulder rolling downhill.  His tragic life is set to crash and burn, as his crimes escalate: To cover up his destructive actions against Susy, he strangles Grande. 

All of this creates a sense of vertigo in the audience as the characters cross borders; national, sexual (the interracial couple, the “rape” of Susy by Grande’s thug nephews) and moral.  Welles comments visually on this crossing over by constantly having his actors cross in front of one another, in a constant battle to invade each other’s space, literally “up-staging” their co-stars, as critic James Naremore has observed.  This is especially noticable in scenes involving the Grandes, and in a wild one with Dennis Weaver as “The nightman”.

There are other fascinating characters in the film, and the way they are dissected and set against each other by the director is fascinating as well.  Naremore has also pointed out that  in contrast to Suzy is the character of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich).  The two are a perfect Madonna/whore combination:The young, blond, impossibly sweet wife and the older, dark, worldly prostitute and ex lover of Qunlan.

The set pieces are astounding: The renowned crane shot that begins the film, as we travel along with Linnaker’s car and the Vargas’s as they approach the border and the awaited explosion.  This is a scene impossible to explain in the space alloted, and almost as difficult to forget.  Also nerve shattering is the throttling of Grande in a dingy fleapit motel.  The gargantuan cop brutally murders the tiny, now pathetic man as Henry Mancini”s theme plays on a far off radio and a neon light flashes outside. 

To heighten the frenzied atmosphere of these and other scenes, Welles forces perspective by utilizing an 18.5 mm lense.  (KANE, was shot with a comparatively normal 25 mm lense, though this too was deemed extreme at the time).  These lenses exaggerate the actor’s movements toward and away from the camera and distort the image.  At times it seems the performers and settings are wrapped around a beach ball. 

These radical techniques are always in service to Welles’s left-wing politics.  “Hank Quinlan is the incarnation of everything I fight against, politically and morally”.  He believed this character represented the fascism that was constantly lurking on America’s doorstep.  The fascism he decried while celebrating Stalin.  Of course, Welles kept quiet about “Uncle Joe” once the enormity of the Soviet dictator’s crimes was revealed.  Inhuman. Sadistic.  In many ways Joseph Stalin was just like Hank Quinlan.

CREDITS: Written and directed by Orson Welles.  Based on the novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.  Director of Photography: Russell Metty.  Music by Henry Mancini.  With Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Calleia, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver. 

RELATED ARTICLES FEATURED ON THIS BLOG: THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), RENÉ CLAIR’S A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (1931), NOAM CHOMSKY AND POWER, DISSENT AND RACISM, PETER BROOK’S PRODUCTION OF MARAT/SADE (1966).

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July 3, 2010 Posted by | Akim Tamiroff, American Film, Charlton Heston, film directors, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BAT WHISPERS (1930)

Artistically, the early sound period was a stagnant one for the Hollywood studios.  Where as filmmakers of the silent era had achieved a great deal of cinematic mobility, directors and crews of the late 1920’s were virtually handcuffed by the new sound technology.  Cameras had to be housed in large boxes, tiny rooms actually, to prevent the sounds of their noisy mechanisms from being recorded by the microphones.  This had the effect of nailing the cameras to the floor.  Another detriment to the new medium of talkies was the unfortunate fact that audiences of the time wanted one thing in their films: Talk.  Of course, that novelty would eventually wear off, but a director named Roland West would not wait to restore mobility to the cinema.  He would not take the easy way out and demanded so much more of his crew.  As the sound period progressed and quieter cameras were introduced, inventive directors like West were able to free cameras from their “ice boxes” and develop a more sophisticated shooting style.  Though most films of 1930 were still fairly primitive, West’s film of that year, THE BAT WHISPERS, is absolutely goofy with camera tracking and craning.  In fact the camera’s constant movement from the outside of buildings in through the windows and doorways etc., is a precursor to shots in CITIZEN KANE (1941).  Of course the West film, with its comic book type story of a master criminal who dons the disguise of a bat, is certainly not up to Orson Welles standards, and all the camera acrobatics grow tiresome, though it can be argued that such probing perfectly compliments a mystery story about the search for a criminal’s identity.  The search in question takes place in and around a creepy old mansion owned by an old lady, Mrs. van Gorder, and her niece, Dale (Una Merkel).  Also present are Dale’s boyfriend (a cashier from a bank that has just been robbed), a frightened maid, who provides a particularly annoying brand of comedy relief and a sinister doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz), as well as several others.  It seems there is a large sum of money (the booty from the robbery) in a hidden room that has attracted the avarice of everyone.  Where is this room?  Who is “The Bat”?  Is he lurking around?  Detective Anderson (Chester Morris), is nowhere near the truth.  “The Bat” is the center of attention as a killer is on the loose (This is an “old dark house” thriller, after all).

All of this (particularly the characters of the maid and doctor) is so much of another era, that we must watch the film with a sense of the comedic and dramatic conventions of the time.  This stuff must have wowed ’em in 1930. 

Even the hoariest scenes are handled with great panache.  The most impressive shot comes when Detective Anderson, in hot pursuit, leaps over a railing and runs through a courtyard, the camera following him all the way. But do these unusual touches ultimately save a film ravaged by time?  No, but if not for Roland West, a man with a unique artistic vision, the film would not even be remembered today, and I would not bother to write a review of THE BAT WHISPERS.  

CREDITS: Written and directed by Roland West. Photography by Ray June and Robert Planck.  Starring Chester Morris, Una Merkel, Grayce Hampton, Maude Eburne, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Chance Ward, Spencer Charters, William Bakewell. Originally released in Magnifilm, an early wide screen process.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Chester Morris, early sound film, film directors, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Orson Welles, Roland West, screenwriters, Una Merkel | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment