Category: Orson Welles

Macbeth (1948)

Macbeth (1948)

Welles first Shakespeare film is a bizarre mix of inspiration and amateurishness

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Macbeth), Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth), Dan O’Herlihy (Macduff), Roddy McDowell (Malcolm), Edgar Barrier (Banquo), Alan Napier (Holy Father), Erskine Sanford (Duncan), John Dierkes (Ross), Keene Curtis (Lennox), Peggy Weber (Lady Macduff), Lionel Braham (Siward)

Macbeth was Welles’ last hurrah in Hollywood before decades of self-imposed banishment and exile. He arrived at Republic Pictures – proud creator of B-movie Westerns, although also the home of a few John Ford classics most notably The Quiet Man – who were delighted to sign up a deal for a literary classic directed by America’s leading man of the theatre. What they ended up with was a film that’s such a bizarre mish-mash of brilliance, originality and amateurishness nonsense, that they were basically befuddled.

Welles shot the film, as contracted, within 23 days on old Westerns sets, with a budget od spit and boot polish. Welles was focused, more than any other film he’d worked on to that point, on visual imagery and total control of sound and audio. So much so he wasn’t fussed about recording any sound on set. All the actors pre-recorded their dialogue, under Welles’ strict instructions, and then silently lip synched while shooting the scenes. This gave Welles the freedom for a host of expressionistic, shadow-filled shots where the actors faces and mouths were frequently unseen – or longer shots where it was impossible to clearly see lips moving. It also made some truly rigid, uncomfortable performances (Jeannette Nolan was granted permission to record her sleepwalking scene ‘live’ so she could perform it with some semblance of conviction).

Macbeth was set in a Scotland somewhere between a fiercely traditional high-school production and a hodge-podge of influences from Celtic wizardry to Mongolian hordes. It’s shot on a dust-lined, cavern-filled panorama that frequently looks like a giant theatrical set or an empty multi-purpose wall-lined amphitheatre, with only a few scenes exchanging this for mist-filled heaths or low-ceilinged caves. The costuming and design is an eclectic mix: the murderers look like cavemen, some thanes wear kilts, Malcolm and his soldiers dress in medieval armour, Macbeth and Banquo look like fur-coated renegades from Genghis Khan. Welles himself would regret a bizarre crown which made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

There is a feeling that every idea was grabbed and thrown at the wall, in the expectation (hope?) that some of them would stick and lead to cinematic magic. There is a vague attempt to suggest Scotland is at war between Christianity and Paganism. A composite character, the ‘Holy Father’ parades around – chasing away witches, leading prayers for Duncan, taking dictation for Macbeth, warning Lady Macduff, rousing Malcolm – but with very little real sense that this ever adds up to anything logical or thematically clear. Welles merrily re-writes and transposes dialogue. Some works well – Banquo here seems far more of a potential partner than usual – others less so (Lady Macbeth turns up at the murder of the Macduffs for no clear reason).

But the stuff that works really works – and most of it is visual. The witches are shadowy figures, whose voices alter in cadence and pattern from scene to scenes (Welles had mixed male and female voices together to create an unsettling rhythm), their faces never seen. Inspired by his famous “Voodoo Macbeth” stage production, they craft muddy statues of Macbeth which they crown with a crude coronet. In one of the encounters with Macbeth, the camera pulls away to isolate Macbeth, lit in misty isolation. More Voodoo touches are seen in the hammering drum beats that greet Duncan to Macbeth’s castle.

Mist and expressionistic images dominate. Malcolm’s army urges from among the fog, carrying their branches from Birnam wood. The final battle is a series of isolated shots of characters, often the camera craning up to them or seeing them march towards it. Macbeth is frequently shot from below, to heighten his sense of being almost an ogre. When first seen as king, he sits, isolated and drunk at the top of a flight of stairs, making him seem less imposing and more weak from the start of his reign. He is haunted not only by Banquo’s ghost, but Duncan’s as well, Welles camera cutting to reveal his cavern dining room empty of everyone but the Macbeth and the ghosts of murdered friends, the camera tracking the shadow of his fingers along the wall to reveal the bleeding Banquo.

The entire production becomes like a drug-induced fantasy, something a near-catatonic Macbeth might just be imagining as his dreams are crushed by the cruel fate he feels destined to follow. Welles establishes a now popular idea of the play being a huge cycle: at this death, the witches announce “Peace, the charm’s wound up” the camera catching a sight of Fleance who seems destined to repeat the chaos. (“The charm’s wound up” not indicating an end, as often mis-interpretated, but a readiness to be enacted.)

The camera, freed of the need to capture dialogue on set, flies around roams around or moves with swiftness. Characters walk into shadows. Sequences – such as the murder of the Macduffs – are met with a parade of fast cuts and actors charging towards the camera. Music cues are carefully repeated, and lines carry across transitions. There are plenty of striking images, from a mass crowd praying for Duncan to a low-angle camera tracking a worried Macbeth in the aftermath of the murder.

But yet… this is also a curious dog’s dinner of a film. For every great idea, others (like the Holy Father) either don’t land or make no sense. Macbeth’s seduction of the murderers, interestingly shot over his shoulder at an imposing distance from his servants, is followed by a laughably badly acted and staged murder of Banquo. The actors all perform in, pretty much across the board, dreadful cliched Scottish accents. This accentuates the problem of lip synching on set, which renders nearly everyone in the film flat and strangely lifeless, stuck to replicating a performance from days ago.

This includes Welles himself. Macbeth is, by some distance, his least interesting film Shakespeare performance. His Thane is all surface and no depth and Welles’ decision to play him as a slave to destiny, frequently renders him catatonic, reading the lines with a Scottish lilt that travels by way of Dublin, with plenty of pace but no depth. Jeannette Nolan struggles slightly with Lady Macbeth, a decent match with Welles but lacking presence. There is barely a performance of merit among the rest of the cast: McDowell is dreadful, O’Herlihy all at sea, Barrier out of his depth. The bulk of the cast look and sound – in their traditional costumes and awkward, unconvincing accents – like high school students staging “the Scottish play” in the most “Scottish” way possible.

Welles, naturally, having shot the film promptly disappeared to Europe leaving notes and memos from a distance about how it should be assembled, some of which were promptly ignored by a supportive studio turn exasperated. Those in Europe were more respecting of the results, praising Welles for re-imagining the text and its expressionistic, fluid shooting style. In America, these elements were condemned a mess. Macbeth is a bit of both: good ideas sitting alongside amateurishness and nonsense. It’s most interesting by far as a silent film: there are images here that linger, from the witches mud statue to Lady Macbeth’s plumet to death. But as an overall package Welles would dwarf it with Othello and Chimes at Midnight, which combined good Shakespeare and good film-making. Macbeth is a struggle to marry expressionist film-making and literary grace that doesn’t always succeed.

Further reading:

Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles changes film history as Citizen Kane

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warwick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Ray Collins (Jim W Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter), Everett Sloane (Mr Bernstein), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Paul Stewart (Raymond), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste), Harry Shannon (Kane’s father)

Writing about Citizen Kane is rather like writing about the Mona Lisa. Both are works of art so famous and influential that you are intimately familiar with them even if you’ve never seen them. But what makes them such constant delights is that, leaving everything else aside, the Mona Lisa is beautiful to look at – and Citizen Kane is hugely enjoyable to watch. Welles’ masterpiece – frequently hailed as the greatest film ever made – is about as close to perfection as you can get.

Entire books have been written about seemingly every aspect of the film’s creation. Welles’ original intention was to call the film American. It’s a fitting title. Citizen Kane is perhaps the finest film ever made on the corruption that ambition, money and power bring to the American spirit. Kane starts out as a pioneering idealist, but his fatal flaw his is need for power. That need to seize control of everything extends from buying all the art he can find in Europe to controlling the lives of all around him. It’s the mentality that will force his second wife into an opera career she is hopelessly unsuited for. It will eventually leave him sitting alone in his huge mansion, surrounded by wealth but bereft of friends. A large part of the American Dream is about “making it big” – and few make it bigger than Kane, and have so little to show for it at the end.

The film is a character study of ambition and power, using a framing device of the late Kane’s final word: “Rosebud”. What did he mean? Will finding out provide the key to understanding this powerful, elliptical man? A reporter (William Alland) aims to find out by interviewing key people from Kane’s life. From their recollections, the story of Kane’s life slowly comes together in a non-linear style. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as a young child inherits one of the world’s largest gold mines. Coming of age, Kane decides to use his wealth to become a press baron. He builds a news empire and runs for Governor – but the public revelation of his affair with amateur singer Susan (Dorothy Comingore) ruins his campaign. He builds a mansion on a man-made mountain, Xanadu, but is isolated and friendless in the echoing rooms of his own mausoleum.

You can argue the same thing happened to Welles himself. Citizen Kane is his own mausoleum, the only time in his life when everything went right. Also, probably the only time Welles’ attention stuck to something long enough to deliver. Welles memorably called working on a film set “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had”, and the entire film is saturated in his creative glee at trying so many new tricks. Citizen Kane bought to the forefront so many methods of film-making, its influence has been so pervasive on film today, that it’s hard to see how revolutionary it appeared at the time.

Welles worked with cameraman Gregg Toland to push the film into a whole new visual language, deeply influenced by German expressionistic film. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and each shot is covered with meaning, Welles’ eye for the theatrical image matched with Toland’s genius for visual language.

Citizen Kane is rarely thought of as a noir film, but it’s possibly the most noirish film you’ll ever see. Watching it again I was struck with how often shadows dominate the screen. Faces are frequently obscured, most famously in the projection room scene, where Thompson receives his instructions to find out what “Rosebud” means. But at key moments, faces disappear into black – while preparing his “Statement of principles” that will fill the front page of Kane’s first edition at the Inquirer, his face is lost in murky darkness. We hear what he is saying, but what is he thinking at this moment? It’s impossible to tell. Long shadows and inky black segments fill the frame frequently – it’s a film that gives a true feeling of darkness and unknowability at its heart.

This is mixed with the theatrical flourish of its constant deep focus. Almost unheard of at the time, every shot of Kane is in perfect focus. It makes for visual compositions inspired by theatre, and ripe with dramatic meaning. Kane’s parents and his guardian William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) organise the future of the young Kane in the foreground, while we see the child playing outside in the show through a window. The deep focus turns Xanadu into a museum of lost chances and dreams, and the Inquirer newspaper office into an increasingly dark corridor of ambition, with people’s fates decided in foreground while we see them trapped in the background.

If that wasn’t enough, Toland uses angles Hollywood films hadn’t dreamed of. For some scenes, trenches were dug into the set and the camera placed in it, allowing the camera to stare up, with the actors towering over us. Citizen Kane is often claimed to be the first film where ceilings needed to build for the sets, as Toland’s angles and camerawork frequently made them visible. It’s not completely true, but it speaks to the visual impact of the film. Nothing really like this had been widely seen before. And I’ve not even mentioned the soaring, swooping tracking shots that pass through signs and buildings, the sort of inspired movement of the camera so many directors before had avoided in favour of stationary recording of the story. It’s visionary stuff.

The same was true for the film’s sound and music. Welles used his experience from radio to turn the soundscape of the film into something truly different. In radio, all cuts are managed by sound, but film had traditionally used only visuals to mark edits. Here, sound is used as often as visuals. When Kane runs for Governor, the sound and vision cut seamlessly from Leland on the stump for Kane to Kane finishing the same speech at a cavernous rally. Early in the film, the words “Happy Christmas” are skilfully cut together to leap forward years. Bernard Herrmann’s spare but perfect score, rather than laid over every scene, only comes in (as on radio) where emotional or transitional change is needed.

But then this is a film that uses editing as a way to tell story that few films before had tried. The sequence showing the collapse of Kane’s marriage to President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick) is the perfect example. Over about two minutes of screen time we see several short scenes, all set at the breakfast table. Each scene shows a progressive step in their relationship collapsing, from loving exasperation to annoyance to anger to mute loathing. The scenes are no more than 20-30 seconds each, but the film perfectly moves from one to the other. The music slowly changes from a romantic waltz to a cold discordant rhythm. Transitions are marked by wipes. In each scene the actors move further apart at their breakfast table, the dialogue becomes harsher, sharper and more confrontational as the room they sit in becomes grander. In a few moments, an entire marriage story is told. It’s quite simply marvellous. The sequence is bookended by matching camera movements, gliding in and then out from the room.

You could speak for pages and pages (as indeed people have) about what a marvel Kane is. Welles’ vision and willingness to push the boundaries created an environment where all his collaborators worked to achieve their best, set free from the restrictions of more traditional moviemaking to stretch themselves as artists in a way rarely allowed. But it’s easy to forget what a marvellous story Citizen Kane is, what an entertaining and brilliantly constructed film it is and how every scene has something that delights and enthrals.

There’s controversy over who wrote the script. Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz are credited – although arguments have been made that each deserved the lion’s share. Whoever did create it, the script is quite simply superb. Economic, but packed with wonderful lines and some extraordinary speeches (Mr Bernstein’s speech about a powerful memory of a young woman he saw once from a distance is quite simply one of the best small-scale speeches you’ll see). Every scene is brilliantly assembled, and gives fabulous material to an extraordinary cast of actors.

It makes for a compelling character study, wrapped into a series of brilliantly done vignettes. Each set of recollections – from Thatcher, business manager Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloane), old friend Jedidah (Joseph Cotton) and ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) – makes for a fabulous series of self-contained scenes, each gaining richer and deeper meaning with every subsequent reflection that follows. There are so many sensational scenes I hardly know where to begin: you could write an essay about each one. Thatcher’s serio-comic reflections of the roguishly cheeky Kane are wonderful. Bernstein’s memories of the chancer coming good – with a brilliantly playful celebration scene – wonderfully entertaining. Jedidah and Susan’s far more tainted reflections of the man’s flaws make for wonderfully constructed drama, presenting a corrupted and bullying Kane. In every scene there is a beautiful moment of dialogue or drama which sticks in the memory.

The acting is equally good. Cotton settles into the groove many of his finest roles would fit into – the never-quite-grew-up schoolboy, who slowly realises his hero has feet of clay. Comingore is wonderfully fragile and then increasingly bitter as Kane’s ill-used second wife, forced into a humiliating career because Kane won’t be married to a failure. Sloane is charmingly loyal, with beautiful moments of profound sadness, as Bernstein. Coulouris is brilliantly funny as the exasperated Thatcher. Ray Collins’ is smooth and unabashed as Kane’s political rival. Agnes Moorehead is tinged with sadness and ambition for her son as Kane‘s mother.

But at the heart of Citizen Kane – in every sense – is Welles. His handpicked crew was some of the best in the business – but it was Welles’ inspiration, his willingness to imagine techniques and approaches un-attempted before, that encouraged them to their finest work here. With the magnetic force of personality that was his hallmark, he inspired everyone to give their very best. And he led from the front. The film is a triumph of drama, tragedy and comedy, directed with sublime grace. Welles the actor is perfectly cast, the part almost a riff on his own cult of personality, the mix of pride and overweening ambition and little-boy cheek crossed with self-destructive laziness. Welles’ performance is faultless in the film, taking Kane from the smirking chap happy to lose a million dollars a year (“at the rate of a million dollars a year I’ll need to close this place…in 60 years”) to the bloated old man, trashing his wife’s room after she walks out. Perfect.

The only tragic note about Citizen Kane is that this wasn’t the first in a career of non-stop genius from Welles. Instead, flaws in his own personality, combined with his ability to make enemies and lack of ability to focus on the task in hand, increasingly consumed Welles, making him eventually a lost great, a man wandering from film set to film set, taking on small roles for cheques that might one day help him make a film. But he’ll always have Kane, the sort of film that is a marvel which can never, ever disappoint. With every scene a classic, every moment compelling, every beat in it perfectly judged, its influence stretching to almost every film made since the late 1940s – it deserves its place as the greatest film of all time.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Tim Holt can’t understand how the world is changing in The Magnificent Ambersons

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Joseph Cotton (Eugene Morgan), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Tim Holt (George Amberson Minafer), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Erskine Sanford (Roger Bronson), Richard Bennett (Major Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafor), Orson Welles (Narrator)

In early 1940s, Orson Welles was given the sort of contract by RKO directors normally only dream of. The freedom to write, direct and star in films of his choice and, most of all, the power of “Final Cut” – the dream of all his contemporaries. All this for a 25-year-old who had never made a film. It was unheard of – and it was never heard of again. The reaction to Citizen Kane had been full of praise from the critics but that hadn’t saved it from box office disappointment – nor the savages of the Hearst press or the jealousy of his peers. The chickens would well and truly come home to roost on The Magnificent Ambersons, the second picture in Welles’ deal.

The film itself is an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel. The Ambersons are a powerful and rich Midwestern family at the turn of the century – but the film charts their decline and fall as the modern age (represented by the motor car) slowly leads their world of genteel wealth and entitlement to a close. It’s a particularly challenging concept for the youngest member of the clan, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) to come to term with, the spoilt young son of Isabel (Dolores Costello), who has grown up expecting his every whim to be met without question. His hostility focuses on Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), his mother’s rejected suitor (now renewing his interest with her widowhood) and inventor who has patented a new form of motorcar. Things are complicated by George’s own love for Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), a young woman who expects George to want more from life than just to live off his family’s wealth.

It’s impossible to discuss The Magnificent Ambersons without mentioning its status as perhaps the greatest “lost film” ever. Welles’ original cut of the film was a little over two hours long. He completed the cut and then flew to Brazil to begin collecting footage for his next project, It’s All True a part-documentary, part-fiction film (which in the end was abandoned). While he was out of the country, the film was roundly rubbished at a test screening. RKO panicked and demanded cuts. Welles had foolishly surrounded his right to final cut for the film and sent back a list of suggested changes (some have argued the list was deliberately bad to force the studio to make no changes), but refused to fly back to supervise things. 

So his editor Robert Wise (later a two-time Academy award winning director) cut the film down to just over an hour and twenty minutes. Cotton and Moorehead were corralled into filming some new scenes to hurriedly wrap the story up and give it the studio mandated “happy ending”. Welles wasn’t happy, but still wouldn’t come back to fight his corner. His notes were destroyed and eventually the remaining negative of the deleted scenes were burnt. So the truncated shadow is all we have.

I call it a shadow, because that is what the film feels like – an afterimage of a true masterpiece, like a dream you can almost completely remember. In some ways it’s an even more confident and controlled piece of film-making than Kane, a wonderfully assured and graceful piece of film-making that mixes luscious long-takes with a triumph of techniques and little details (both of performance and technical work). Welles captures this all within a triumphantly impressive set, an elephantine house of at least three stories with a winding grand staircase, that allows him to film from different, heights and angles as well as indulge a series of graceful tracking shots that all proceed and accompany the actors through the house.

Welles matches this with a storyline that captures a sense of a country in a state of change – a tipping point of modern America as the Henry Jamesian Old Americans, with their wealth and inherited English-class system, gave way to industrialist new money. These two worlds sit awkwardly against each other, constantly compared and contrasted – Eugene’s car factory is a noisy, piston filled Ford-ist church, a world away from the formal gentility of the Amberson home. 

Welles also captures this in a series of wonderful vignettes, not least an early scene featuring Morgan driving Isabel and her siblings through the snow bound countryside in his prototype motor car, at first passed by an arrogant George with Lucy in a horse and sleigh, then having to bail George out when the sleigh turns leaving him and Lucy stranded. George is reduced to pushing the car to getting it started – getting a face full of fumes for good measure – a humiliation that hardens his stance against the modern world (and Eugene) all the more.

Because for George – superbly played with a fragile ego and utter lack of self-awareness by a preeningly weak Tim Holt – the world has a certain order that places Ambersons at the top and the rest of the world at various levels on the way down. And anything that might threaten to change that is rejected at all costs. George expects the world to march to his tune without him putting in the faintest effort – and when it doesn’t, his whole life is a desperate raging of petty attempts to assert his control.

This focuses above all on exerting a bullying moral force on his mother, a woman who loves her son but also wants to explore the romantic feelings she has for Eugene (and by extension her understanding that the world is changing). George makes this choice stark – him or Eugene – a choice no mother can be expected to make. Dolores Costello is superb as a woman who has spent her life shutting her eyes to her son’s selfish nature until it’s too late to change, who sacrifices her own desires for the good of her family.

The whole film is a feast of sublime acting, a reminder of how Welles could get the best out of actors (all regular collaborators of his). Joseph Cotton’s earnestness is perfect for the upright and decent Eugene, too proud to let his resentment and anger show. Ray Collins is wonderfully sweet and endearing as Jack, George’s generous and open-minded uncle. Anne Baxter has a radiant honesty that hides a determined spine of moral certainty as Eugene’s daughter Lucy. Perhaps finest of all is Agnes Moorehead (Oscar nominated) as Aunt Fanny, George’s spinster aunt, who has worn a mask of contentment over her own frustrations and resentments for so long she only slowly begins to work out what she actually feels about anything at all. Moorehead’s performance walks a brilliant line between careful underplaying and explosive dynamics – she has at least three striking emotional breakdown scenes of such brittle honesty that it’s enough to move you to tears.

All of this comes together into a superb package of sublime film-making and intelligent story telling. The problem is it’s too short. The later scenes really bear the brunt, with Wise’s cutting trimming much of the connecting meat between the key scenes. Events towards the end seem to happen with no build up – characters suddenly die, fortunes are swiftly lost, years disappear from one scene to the next. As the film accelerates through its final half hour, narratively it begins to make less and less sense. Then the studio caps on a functionally filmed happy ending (Wise does at least ape Welles’ tracking shot techniques – he was a very capable director) which rings utterly untrue with the sadly elegiac story we’ve been watching (superbly narrated by the way by Welles).

It makes The Magnificent Ambersons a wonderful, incomplete masterpiece. It’s the filmic equivalent to those parts cut off from The Night Watch or Ucello’s Battle of San Romano. What we are left with is still awe inspiring. But it could have been even more.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in hall of mirror mystery The Lady from Shanghai

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Erskine Schilling (“Goldie” Goldfish), Carl Frank (DA Galloway)

Orson Welles’ career is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda moments. The Lady from Shanghai is perhaps the most telling lost opportunity in all his extensive CV of recut products and studio interference. Unlike Touch of Evil, there remains no trace of the footage removed from the film by the studio – instead we are left with the remains of the picture that escaped rejigging.

Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is an Irish drifter, who saves the glamourous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from muggers in a park. Attracted to him (perhaps), as he is to her, she hires him to work on a yacht she and her husband, famed lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), are sailing around the coast. During the voyage, O’Hara is approached by Bannister’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) with a deadly proposition – and is sucked into a web of cross and double cross.

The Lady from Shanghai is an odd curiosity. At the time it was condemned by critics as a scarcely coherent film noir, struggling to involve the audience in its ins and outs. Today it’s seen more as a missed opportunity classic, which Welles nearly managed to turn into a landmark film before the studio heads recut the entire thing over his head. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

Welles agreed to do the movie for nothing, in return for funding for his stage production of a Cole Porter musical based on Around the World in 80 Days. Stories change depend on who you talk to, but essentially Welles agreed to do the first piece of work that was chucked his way – which happened to be this moderate plot-boiler. Welles shot a lot of the film with an imaginative eye and provided several fascinating set-pieces. But was he really that interested in the film?

It’s hard to say. Certainly it makes you wonder when you look at his rather disengaged performance. Welles (unwisely) takes on an Irish accent and basically feels distracted and bored throughout – as if he felt the whole thing was beneath him. O’Hara becomes a pretty bland character whom it’s impossible to really develop an affinity for. Welles hardly looks cut out for the fighting he’s called on to do – has an actor in a good movie thrown a less convincing punches in a scuffle before?

Because the rest of the film is fairly good, by and large. The plot is almost impossible to follow, but that is partly the point – the growing number of double crosses are designed to feel like we are spiralling down a rabbit hole with O’Hara. But it’s the style it’s told with – brash and exciting camera shots, and an edgy jaggedness in performance and storytelling that alternates with a dreamy sense of unreality. Welles throws this all the wall, but somehow manages to hold it more or less together – perhaps helped by the fact that he treated it like a slightly disposable piece of pulp.

The film’s final act culminates in an extraordinary shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with characters replicated over and over again in reflection, lines of them appearing as if from nowhere. There is a quirky surrealness about this, with reflections superimposed over each other, or armies of a single character marching towards the camera. Bannister’s walking stick movement, stiff and awkward, also really helps here as he starts to look like a pack of spiders. 

Of course Welles intended this sequence to be almost twice the length, but it was cut down by a bewildered studio. They also insisted that Welles insert a parade of close-ups of characters, in particular of Rita Hayworth, which was exactly contrary to Welles’ intention to use as many distancing long and medium shots. Welles’ original plan for the score was also ditched in favour of a rather flat, dull, traditional score.

But then there are the moments of exotic, heated sex that Welles managed to leave in. As our heroes sail off into the tropics, the bubbling sexual tension between O’Hara and Elsa boils over. It bubbles over into other relationships as well – does every man desire Elsa? Or are there other elements at play? The final offers for murder and money are almost deliberately hard to follow – is it all a summertime madness? As the plot becomes more and more odd, so the film begins to become more bizarre in its setting, finally heading into Chinatown and then an abandoned funfair.

Away from Welles’ weaker turn in the lead, there are some strong performances. Everett Sloane is fantastic as the sinister lawyer, propelling himself forward with walking sticks, his motives impossible to read. Glenn Anders is wonderfully slimy as a creepy lawyer, whose every line has some sort of cackling insinuation. Rita Hayworth brings a sexual charge to the film, mixing manipulation and genuine feeling.

These performances fit neatly into the film, which continues forward with its bamboozling plot. This story never quite engages the audience – and there isn’t quite enough in the film itself that has been left us to be sure that, even with the cut material put back in, it could have been a classic. But there are enough interesting notes in there to keep you watching – and the final sequence is extraordinary and haunting in its extravagant oddness. But I’m still not sure this is a major work – rather it seems to be a curiosity from a great director.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles investigates (though the real mystery is probably Charlton Heston’s Mexican heritage)

Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Police Captain Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Joanna Cook Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Mort Mills (Al Schwartz), Dennis Weaver (Night Manager)

Has any director ever cast himself in such a physically unflattering role as Welles takes on here? Hank Quinlan is a grotesque, sweaty, grossly obese, lame, mumbling copper with a hinterland of loneliness in his past and a background of missed chances. Yet despite this, it’s Quinlan’s film and despite the terrible things he does in the film (kidnap, two murders, suspect framing) it’s very hard not to feel empathy and sorrow for him. Welles’ immense charisma as a performer is a large part of this, but I think he also recognises the sadness of being the genius who has surrounded himself with mediocrities, the man who knows he could have achieved more in life but for whatever reason never did. If that’s not Welles’ career, what is?

Of course Quinlan isn’t actually the lead. Charlton Heston, curry-coloured but otherwise actually pretty good, plays Vargas, a Mexican law agent (“He don’t look like a Mexican” Quinlan correctly observes) with a new American wife, caught up in an investigation into a bombing of an American citizen in a US-Mexico border-town. Quinlan investigates, finds his culprit quickly and produces evidence – evidence Vargas knows for a fact wasn’t there minutes ago. Accusations of corruption fly and, before you know it, Quinlan (a man flirting with corruption) is forced into alliance with a jumped-up Mexican gang leader to frame Vargas for corruption via implicating his wife in drugs and murder.

The plot, however, largely takes second place to Welles’ virtuoso film-making. The opening sequence of the film – an extended three and a half minute single take that tracks in and out of streets, from close-ups to crane shots – has an astonishing “how did they do that?” quality. But it’s matched by Welles’ brilliance with both actors and camera placement during the equally long continuous takes set in bomb suspect Sanchez’s apartment. He’s adept at jinglingly unsettling imagery, with the murder scene 2/3rd of the way through the film almost queasily twitchy in its fragmented shooting style. The final sequence of the film, as Vargas tracks Quinlan through a filthy oil yard, should be silly but is completely compelling.

Welles of course dominates the film as Quinlan. I love the half smile on his face as his praises are sung by besotted partner Menzies early in the film – the “aw shucks, are you talking about me?” non-modesty – but I also adore the unspoken sadness of his early scene with Dietrich, where he sadly attempts to flirt with this (presumably) lost love (we are never told for certain) only for her to literally not recognise him. Quinlan in many ways is a good copper – he frames the guilty, he doesn’t take bribes, he is reasonably loyal – but he’s also selfish, egotistical and needs the adoration of his position to fill the void in his life. He’s a man who’s corrupt almost without realising it, who sinks into bemused maudlin depression when accused without even recognising that he is in fact guilty.

There are some other equally strong performances in the film. Heston of course looks ridiculous – but look past that and this is one of his best performances, Vargas demonstrating the stand-up, straight-shooting honesty of many of Heston’s roles, combined with arrogant short sightedness and narrow minded determination. Janet Leigh is also absolutely terrific as his wife, despite being saddled with a bizarre subplot of being terrorised in a motel. A note for trivia fans – Leigh actually broke her arm before shooting and it’s in a cast throughout the movie bar one shot (where she doesn’t move her arm) – you can’t spot it until you know.

I was particularly enthralled by a beautiful performance of hero-worship from Joseph Calleia as Menzies, Quinlan’s adoring partner whose entire life has been one of loyal service to Quinlan. In many ways he is the moral centre of the film, and as the film shifts its focus to Quinlan, so it equally explores the changes in how Menzies views his boss. Akim Tamiroff gives a lovely performance of puffed up pomposity as a ridiculous small time gangster with a dodgy wig. Dennis Weaver’s hotel manager is an eccentric collection of manners that is more likely to split opinions, but he doesn’t half go for the oddness. Marlene Dietrich is marvellous in her few brief scenes.

Touch of Evil is one of those films that lingers with you and rewards constant reflection and rewatching. I re-watched large chunks of it again immediately the next morning. As a piece of film making it’s a master class, an immersive, tightly framed, wonderfully shot film that brilliantly uses its filthy, litter strewn locations. The acting is terrific and the final moments strangely moving. Welles was a terrible self-promoter and later he ballooned to the very Quinlan proportions that padding and make-up create here. But when he was on his game, and fully focused, he was terrific. As is the film, which is surely one of the greatest (and last) film noirs ever.

CODA: The coda to this? Of course Welles wasn’t fully focused. He cut the film once, then shot off to Mexico to explore a new film possibility. Studio hands recut the film again. Welles sent a famous 58 page memo suggesting changes. Most of them got ignored for the third cut. Three versions of the film now exist – the two studio recuts and a 1998 recut using the memo (Welles’ original was wiped). I watched the 1998 recut. But it’s always the problem with Welles – a man I always felt who largely lacked the focus to actually finish something. The film bombed on release. Welles never worked in Hollywood again.