Archive for Touch of Evil

The View

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2021 by dcairns

This shot in ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) is so extreme in its wide-angle distortion (enhancing the fact that John Ireland really was enormous and Mercedes McCambridge really was tiny) that I wished the whole film was like that. Serious TOUCH OF EVIL vibes, and of course MM would go on to appear in TOE.

In fact, the rest of the film isn’t that much less distorted: so much of the action is big sweaty men crammed into small hotel rooms. Director Robert Rossen and DP Burnett Guffey crowd the frame with different-sized figures. Welles has to have been the inspiration. Rossen looks at CITIZEN KANE and then Welles comes along and borrows McCambridge ten years later.

I liked the movie — Ireland and McCambridge together before THE SCARF — Broderick Crawford in the role he was born for — but I didn’t love it. Maybe because the assassination of Huey Long, a dramatic twist in real life, feels like a cop-out in a fictionized version. I don’t know of any real-life political stories with satisfying climaxes. Stories of revolution are quite satisfying, but then you have to leave out what comes after (generally, disillusion). How the hell does Costa-Gavras do it?

Actually, this week I’ve been mainly listening to political history podcasts. Leon Neyfakh created the first two series of Slow Burn over at Slate, which dealt with Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment, and now he does Fiasco, which so far has covered Bush V Gore, the Iran-Contra scandal, school desegregation (“busing” as it got termed, a very successful piece of objuscation), and the Benghazi tragedy and its fall-out. Really terrific stuff. You could compare them to Adam Curtis documentaries for the ears, but if you don’t like Curtis I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of loving these.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by dcairns

So, Fiona has now finished her viewing of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (or THE ORSON SIDE OF THE WELLES) and pronounced it fascinating, though she’s unsure if it’s major. That uncertainty relates, surely, to the perceptible vagueness of the film’s “plot” — almost all based in character interactions, though the unfinished film at its centre motivates many of these. And the film doesn’t spell these out: why does Hannaford reject Otterlake at the end? (An inversion of Falstaff and Hal, but an exact anticipation of Welles’s spurning of Bogdanovich.) Why does Hannaford kill himself? (The film doesn’t even insist that he does, but we’re invited to think so, and surely a random DUI accident would be an even flatter ending than the suicide of a character Welles called “a miserable prick.”) The fact that Hannaford’s absconded star tricked his way into the movie is set up as a big deal, but what are the psychological implications of this for Hannaford? The film doesn’t come out and tell us.

I’m not ready to call this vagueness a flaw — it’s quite possible that Welles, while rejecting aspects of the new arthouse cinema of Fellini, Antonioni et al — what Pauline Kael called “sick-soul-of-Europe parties” — he might be embracing Pinterish ambiguity. Or he might be struggling to achieve coherence with multiple drafts of a script filmed over years in different countries with some major actors never meeting each other (he’d done that before: OTHELLO, of course, but every time a character turns their back on the camera in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, it’s a stand-in). Or Bob Murawski and the team assembling Welles’s footage may have erred, missed chances at establishing clarity, We can’t assign all the blame or credit to Welles because he only edited five or so sequences, and even those have been rejigged for the finished film.

But against any theory that Welles had lost focus, that the film is shapeless or unresolved, we have to balance things like the matching references to “the magic box” at the beginning and end, and the way the making-of doc shows that when Welles reshot Rich Little’s scenes with Bogdanovich and Bogdanovich’s with Joseph McBride, he duplicated many lines and camera set-ups exactly… There WAS a plan. It may have been incomplete, or lost some of its cohesion along the way, but a lot of this film of accidents was conceived in advance.

Remember, CITIZEN KANE has been described/dismissed as “a labyrinth without a centre” and the famous “Rosebud” punchline may or may not explain anything. Welles LIKED a certain avoidance of clarity, and did everything he could to “take the mickey out of” that film’s solution. Some have complained that the plotting in TOUCH OF EVIL and LADY FROM SHANGHAI is unclear — the former sidelines its murder mystery so thoroughly that the solution can be tossed away in a line by a supporting character, and then we get “What does it matter what you say about people?” The latter was savagely re-edited precisely to impose clarity and add windy explanations so nothing would be in doubt, but the exposition is so overwhelmed by Welles’s visuals that we simply don’t listen. And it ends with a double “Maybe” from the voice-over. AMBERSONS was mutilated, it would seem, because Welles staged a would-be uplifting ending in an un-uplifting (downputting?) manner, and audiences didn’t know how to react. Welles quite often explores areas of conflicted response, notably in the way he’ll turn the villain, especially if played by himself, into the most compelling character.

I can’t help it, it just feels so good to be discussing this film alongside the rest of the oeuvre, at last!

Wise Boxes Clever

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2018 by dcairns

Our viewing of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL of course demands a follow-up screening of something or other… I felt in a way less need to investigate this time, as I’ve already seen plenty of Robert Wise films, and even a few movies involving screenwriter Edmund H. North (IN A LONELY PLACE, SINK THE BISMARCK!, DAMN THE DEFIANT! and, ahem, METEOR). I’ve even covered STRANGER FROM VENUS. But THE SET-UP, directed by Wise in 1949, was overdue for a watch…

This one’s scripted by Art Cohn, from a poem (!) by Joseph Moncure March.

It’s alright… Percy’s here…

Really terrific filmmaking — I’m on record saying that Wise’s best cinematic effects usually hinge on editing, his métier, but this one has a lot of gorgeous push-in shots, moving deeper into the urban landscape of the film. The sweaty, shadowy feel of the movie is its best feature, aided by great noir faces — Robert Ryan, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton. Even Darryl Hickman, his fresh-faced appeal like a flower in hell, by which the surrounding inferno appears all the grimmer.

The big gimmick, that the story unfolds in real time, was a cause of frustration for the filmmakers since the audience turned out to be serenely oblivious to this. All those big clocks were for naught. But the excellent sound mix — there’s no score — does have great value, with the cross-cutting between Ryan and Audrey Totter tied together by devices like a streetcar blasting past, close-up for her, distant when we cut to him. The Aristotelian Unities may be quietly helping the film along, even if most of us don’t notice. After all, Hollywood style prided itself on invisibility. Why shouldn’t we consider this, and Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT, with its black-and-white-in-colour aesthetic, be regarded as roaring successes precisely because nobody at the time noticed?

Totter’s walk through town seems to very clearly prefigure what Welles wanted for his opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL, in terms of sound design.

I was genuinely puzzled about how the movie would end, though I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. For a while, it looks to be as bleak as you can get. Bleaker. Audrey Totter has a near-impossible task, spinning the tragic denouement as a triumph, and she pulls all the stops out and then breaks them off and throws them in the air. A little too much, Audrey.

But it’s impressive how RKO got away with a crime story in which the guilty go completely unpunished, and indeed the law is entirely absent.