BySteph Fitch, writer at
Professor of Film Studies @ BCTC
Steph Fitch

Before the end of Hollywood's studio system, and the factory, mass produced, morally upstanding films, where the good guys clearly won, and the bad guys paid for their sins, Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in his fifth "Hollywood film," - and his last American film, Touch of Evil (1958). Touch of Evil meet with poor box-office sales, criticized of being, sleazy, pulp-fiction trash, and yet in hind sight it is remembered as the last great film noir in the classic era of noirs (1940s to late 1950s).

It might be considered in our review of the last golden age of Hollywood for two reasons, one it was noted by our author as one of the few good movies to come from the Hollywood system in the late 50's and 60's, and two for one great reason, in 1976, it was re-released with 15 minutes of additional scenes - which Orson Welles called a "bastardized version of his film." For this review, I want to look at one scene of the film, the climax. If you are ever given the chance, watch a Touch of Evil, and experience Orson's touch of brilliance, to get you started here is a clip from the opening, a REMARKABLE tracking shot that takes the audience into the chaos of the film, while "tracking" our main character:


The entire film, is fluid, moving with the character's, the camera seems to be like a "private eye" on the set, following our characters.

The gripping climax of the film, shows Welles remarkable style with the camera work, the editing and pacing, and the use of sound.

Menzies lures an inebriated Quinlan out of the noisy parlor so that a recording can be made. Menzies and Quinlan walk through the desolation and filth of a section of canals in the town. The film viewer hears the conversation from two sources: the characters and through the speaker on Vargas' receiver speaker, this builds the tension, as the camera follows Vargas' and the two men.

Welles uses low angles to build the power of the characters, where with Vargas he looks powerful, even when he is caught in the gun sites of Quinlan, Quinlan's low angle makes him look heavier, crazed. He tries to wash the blood from his hands after shooting Menzies, which leaves him with his back turned. The audience is focused, like Quinlan on Vargas, so when the gun shot is fired, the oblique cut to Quinlan, seems off until he falls forward in the frame. The completion of the task, the audience sees Menzies hat fall from his head, the shadow passes Quinlan and his eyes move to the water, Menzies is dead. We cut ahead to the end of Quinlan, as he like the hat falls back into the stank water. The load splash as the camera is above in power of Quinlan as he helplessly falls lifeless into the water. It ends with two of the supporting characters finding Quinlan, summarizing his life in one sentence:


Welles, who is a master of story telling through shots, takes the audience into a dark world, where no one is good or bad, each character has both touches of evil and good, his use of camera angles, shadow and editing, take a low budget b-movie and created a classic that still can capture audiences, and make them feel the heat off the summer night in Mexico.


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