Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil


Final paper written for my Art of Film class—

Perfect Imperfection:

Towards a Psychological Realism in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil

In taking on Orson Welles to direct Touch of Evil, Universal Studios got much more than it had bargained for: a film which rises far above its thriller, film noir origins, leaving the banality of plot behind in favor of a grim exploration of corruption achieved through Welles’ stylistic expression of a world more real than real: a nightmare world of ambiguities and distortions, a world literally on a border but within which there are no borders, a world of grotesque detail, of sweat, of dirt, of debris, a world whose mere existence invites the exploration of the film’s themes far better than any plot ever could.

This creation of a hyperreal environment is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement: in watching the film, one does not feel as if one is looking at the characters, the scenes, but rather that one is looking around at them, standing in the scenes themselves. The plot is entirely secondary to Welles’ exploration of a world steeped in muck and corruption: a world populated by debris, human and otherwise. The film itself would hardly exist were it removed from its aesthetic environment; it stands as an achievement of style in that Welles subordinates the content of the film—its plot—to the stylistic expression of that content, using a complex combination of mise-en-scène, lighting, and camera movement to establish a visual system which not only creates a world for the film to inhabit, but an environment for its viewer to enter into—an experience which leaves him reeling from its sheer intensity of feeling. In this way, Welles’ film subverts the elements of Bazinian realism, creating a film which achieves, through aesthetic expressionism, not a perfect illusion of reality, but a psychological one. 

TOUCH OF EVIL, from left: Janet Leigh, Valentin de Vargas, 1958

Janet Leigh and Valentin de Vargas

In his An Aesthetic of Reality and The Myth of the Total Cinema, film critic André Bazin describes his theory of realism in cinema as being “the creation of a perfect illusion of the outside world through sound, colour, and three-dimensionality,” (What Is Cinema?, 15). He goes on to say, in his “An Aesthetic of Reality” that, though realism necessarily finds its basis on the aesthetic level, rather than the narrative one, it does not rely on or make use of “expressionist heresy” (WIC, 26). Of course films of realism make use of style, but the true aesthetic of realism is one in which the illusion of reality is complete; the viewer feels that he is experiencing—or at least witnessing—reality. Having established what realism in film is, Bazin continues on to set up Orson Welles as a harbinger of an increased realism in the aesthetic of cinema: “Orson Welles restored to cinematography a fundamental quality of reality—its continuity” (WIC, 28), he tells us, referring to Welles’ singular use of deep focus and long shots to portray events in their simultaneity, eradicating the abstractions inherent to more traditional montage. In discussing Welles, Bazin takes his examples mainly from Citizen Kane, however many of his observations hold true for Touch of Evil, particularly in Welles’ use of deep focus to present events in their simultaneity (as in the scene where Vargas telephones Susan: we see Vargas in the middle ground on the phone—the main subject of our attention, the blind woman in the foreground to the lower right of the frame, and Menzies and Joe Grandi in the background, arguing, seen through a window) and his use of long continuous takes (as in the opening shot). However, though these elements of Welles’ style line up with Bazin’s idea of realism, Bazin’s interpretations of them are incorrect. Touch of Evil is not a film of Bazinian realism, which Welles would argue is imperfect in its perfection, but one of a deeper, more meaningful realism: perfect in its imperfections. It is a film which subverts elements of Bazinian realism, creating neither a realism nor a non-realism, but a world in which the two blend together in a hyperreal nightmare whose look often escapes realism, but whose feel gets to the very core of it.

In order to achieve his realism, Welles creates an environment for his film to inhabit and for the viewer to enter into through a system of carefully constructed mise-en-scène, lighting, and camerawork. The essential factor of Welles’ filmic world is division and the ambiguity of the place where two opposites must touch: the border. Not for nothing is the film set in a border town: the film, like the plot and the characters themselves, occupies an ambiguous space where two opposing forces blend into one amalgamation of dirt, filth, and ambiguous morals. Perhaps the most obvious stylistic choice Welles makes to examine this theme is his use of high contrast lighting. The film is shot, in the style of most noir films, in high contrast, however Welles’ decision is not merely a stylistic one in keeping with his (ostensible) genre, but one married to the expression of his content. The extreme dark and extreme light of the film come to symbolize its many polarities early on: good and evil, Mexican and American, right and wrong, clarity and obscurity. However, the system does not remain so simple for long and scarcely eight minutes into the film, Welles introduces a major visual motif: the steady, rhythmic pulsing of light and dark in scenes of particular threat, forcefully drawing our attention to their juxtaposition and literally refusing to shed light on the situation, highlighting its ambiguity and the breakdown of division through the close proximity of the light and dark in their alteration. The first instance of this is not glaringly apparent. It comes in the meeting between Susan and Grandi in the Ritz Hotel and begins just as the anxious, but determined Susan is about to enter the hotel. The intermittent flash of light comes from a pulsing neon sign outside the window and, though the effect it has on the already lit room is not immense, it establishes a visual pattern through which Welles examines the breakdown of borders, both physical and figurative, and the resultant ambiguity which is left by the blending of polarities. The climax of the film is foreshadowed by this motif as it, too, occurs in the Ritz Hotel and is accompanied by the most glaring instance of the rhythmically flashing light—which is generated by the same neon sign from the earlier scene, but whose effect is made far more dramatic by the blackness of the room. As Quinlan and Grandi discuss Susan and Vargas before Quinlan strangles Grandi over Susan’s inert form, the pulsing is at first gentle, barely noticeable, until Quinlan asks Grandi to turn out the lights (1:20:37) in anticipation of dark deeds to follow. The scene is immediately plunged into a blackness so dense and dark, we can hardly distinguish Grandi and Quinlan’s forms any longer. However, because of the pulsing of the neon light outside the window, the scene is rhythmically illuminated, allowing us to see the action clearly only in flashes. Here the motif’s meaning becomes apparent: it signals a moral breakdown, the blurring of lines, the blending good and evil together, eliminating the boundary between them. In the darknesses between the flashes of light we comprehend that evil touches everything, just as is this omnipresent, repressive, oily blackness does. As we comprehend the moral ambiguity of Quinlan an his actions, so to we witness the scenes in alternating light and dark, forcing the interpretation onto the viewer. If we were to see the scene in the full light of the lightbulb on the wall, it would hardly seem half as terrifying it does. However, were we to witness it in near pure darkness, it would not have the same impact either as it would be clear, by association, that what was happening was wrong. Because we are presented with both options in alternating flashes, we recognize the scene’s ambiguity and feel the horror of that ambiguity. There is a comfort in borders because they give us clear delineation, they tell us what to think and how to feel. But Welles allows us none of that comfort; there are no clear borders in real life (literally illustrated by the fluidity and permeability of the U.S.-Mexico border in the film): only ambiguity and the resultant fear of the unknown. Welles plunges the viewer into that feeling of fear right along side Susan, using the growing omnipresence of the flashing to aid in the creation of his nightmare world, whose sick aesthetic hyperreality—rendered through its expressionism—merely adds to the viewer’s gut recognition of reality. chuck_orson

Charlton Heston and Welles

Welles’ intricate use of mise-en-scène parallels his lighting in dragging the viewer through the world of filth and debris that the film occupies. This is best illustrated through the film’s opening shot: a three and a half minute continuous shot which sets the tone for the film and introduces us to its world. As the camera moves sinuously through the streets of Los Robles, we take in a world of peeling paint and streets littered with debris; diegetic music shifts and changes as we move through the space, echoing the experience of being in it and we feel the buzzing energy of a place alive with movement even at the late hour—movement which is echoed in the complex choreography required to achieve the shot. The shot’s duration is set from the first moment: three and a half minutes, the length of time before the bomb goes off. As the viewer, we are in a privileged position as, having seen the bomb go into the trunk, we know and anticipate what everyone we follow in the shot doesn’t: a bomb is about to go off. Welles ensures that the camera does not stay with the car carrying the bomb, keeping it out of frame or subordinated in the frame, in order to keep us guessing at it, anticipating the explosion. His mise-en-scène is alive and constantly shifting its focus: from the bomber, to the doomed car, to a newlywed couple walking across the border, back to the car, then to the newly weds again. As the shot reaches its climax, the newlyweds kiss and the bomb goes off behind the camera, the sound of the explosion sharply contrasting with the image of the kiss. All of this, though, is essential to establishing the manic energy of the film and its grimy environment. In this one shot, we witness many simultaneous events, just as the film itself goes on to do. Because of the complex mise-en-scène, the viewer is not sure what to focus on, who the actual subjects of the film will be, where he should turn his eyes; an element which is mirrored later in the film both in Welles’ use of depth of focus in unique shots and in the elements of the plot as well, which is so subjectively portrayed and jamb-packed full of red-herrings that one does not know where to divert one’s attention. The mise-en-scène of the opening sequence also anticipates the mise-en-scène of the ending, when we will see Vargas once again surrounded by debris, but no longer immune to it, happy as he walks along with his wife. He, like everyone else in the film, like the viewer, will be touched by the filth of the mise-en-scène, touched by the evil it represents. That the film ends in a swirling trash heap after having begun in streets swirling with people as well as trash, makes an overt connection between people and debris, commenting on the state of the human condition. The film’s mise-en-scène relies heavily on literal debris to further Welles’ metaphor. There is a recurring motif of debris blowing through the air, as in the alley around Vargas or outside Tanya’s club. The filth is not limited to trash: at one point, Quinlan crushes an egg on himself, covering himself in muck; the disarray of Susan’s motel room following her ambiguous kidnapping is another illustration of the apparently inevitable descent into grime; and the language used to talk about Linnaker’s body likens his remains to bits of trash. Really, it’s only fitting for the film to end in a literal dump, Quinlan sinking slowly beneath the surface of debris, mirroring the descent into filth that was his life.

Part of the creation of this environment is owed to Welles’ facility with his camera, which he uses again and again to expressionistically distort the realism of the film. While Bazin is right in noting Welles’ preference for long takes and deep focus, those elements do not have the impact that Bazin describes in terms of his realism. Bazin speaks of these elements in terms of their ability to seamlessly recreate reality, going unnoticed by the viewer as they create an illusion. In Touch of Evil, though, they do neither of these things. In the film, Welles’ camera work calls attention to itself: he often uses extremely low or high angles which would be impossible views in reality. His camera’s movement, too, draws attention to itself: near the end of the film as Menzies and Quinlan talk, they look up at an oil derrick and the camera itself takes on the rhythmic pumping motion of the machine even as they turn away from it (1:38:19).        Towards the creation of Susan’s nightmare world, the camera’s movement is often erratic, unpredictable, even manic, turning the bland little motel into a veritable house of horrors. The camera itself creates the feeling of her reality; not the image. Indeed, in the moment when she awakes to see Grandi’s eyes bulging grotesquely from his head above her, the image itself has a bizarre unreality. However, the viewer still feels Susan’s reality and comprehends the psychological realism of the scene as a result of the lighting and the camera’s movement, despite the image’s inauthenticity. It’s through this sort of expressionism that Welles achieves his overall goal of a psychological realism, rather than a visual, “perfect illusion of reality” one.

So, then, it becomes apparent that though Welles does not adhere to Bazin’s definition of realism—largely because of his expressionistic tendencies—still he has succeeded in the creation of a realism in Touch of Evil. Through his expressionist cinematography, mise-en-scène, and lighting, Welles achieved a sense of realism surpassing that of the “illusion of reality” of Bazin. Bazin’s illusion is, for Welles, imperfect because it is “perfect.” Bazin’s was an idealist idea (as illustrated in his Myth of the Total Cinema) and as such, it is out of touch with the true reality of the world. In the tribute he wrote to Jean Renoir upon his death in the LA Times, Welles discusses Renoir’s idea that “the real trouble with Hollywood” is that “it worship[s] an ideal of so-called perfection” (LA Times) with some reverence. This ideal is the ideal pursued by Bazin, as well, though he might resent being categorized with Hollywood. There is no perfect illusion, no ideal. No technology can perfectly represent reality in the way that we experience it and so to attempt to do so is absurd. What makes a realism real is not perfection, not perfect sound or perfect image or perfect, seamlessly long takes (which do not even exist in real life because we have our own built-in editing system: we blink!). Instead, realism is all about creating a feel of reality, which Welles does skillfully with his expressionistic style. Thus, we see that Welles is wary of idealists like Bazin, who would remove Renoir’s “conflict between exterior realism and interior non-realism” (LA Times) in favor of a too-perfect illusion of exterior realism. Indeed, when Welles’ Quinlan warns Menzies to “Look out: Vargas’ll turn you into one of these starry-eyed idealists. They’re the ones making all the real trouble in the world,” (1:37:44-1:37:53), one can’t help but imagine Welles is delivering an indictment against cinema’s idealists too.


Welles and Heston on the set of Touch of Evil

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “An Aesthetic of Reality” in What Is Cinema? N.p.: N.p., n.d. Photocopy.

Bazin, André. “The Myth of the Total Cinema” in What Is Cinema? N.p.: N.p., n.d. Photocopy.

Welles, Orson. “Jean Renoir: ‘The Greatest of All Directors.'” Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] 18 Feb. 1979: n. pag. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Welles Net. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://www.wellesnet.com/thanksgiving-treat-orson-welles-on-jean-renoir/&gt;.

Works Consulted

Bazin, André. “In Defense of Rossellini” in What Is Cinema? Volume 2, André Bazin. Berkeley/ Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2005. 93-101. Print.

Truffaut, François. The Films in My Life. New York: Diversion Books, 2014. N. pag. Print.

Welles, Orson. “Orson Welles’ Memo on Touch of Evil.” Ed. Lawrence French. Welles Net. Ed. Ray Kelly. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://wellesnet.com/touch_memo1.htm&gt;.


Behind the scenes—the filming of Touch of Evil‘s opening shot


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