Forget Rosebud, It’s Time To Get Evil!

| August 19, 2011

Orson Welles is well-known for many things, among them being the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and the movie “Citizen Kane.”  The movie is praised by many, and the AFI lists “Citizen Kane” as the top film of all time on their 100 list. I wonder if these people saw the same movie I did. I love classic films, so it is not some form of snobbery against black and white cinema. I found “Citizen Kane” to have the same effect as taking Benadryl. It is the perfect cure for insomnia. I think you get the point.

There are a lot of pauses at the end of many scenes where it seems like the editors forgot to fade it out quicker. I do not know if this was intentional, but it drove me crazy. Then there is the idealism and the idea of what journalism could be. I think I am just too cynical after decades of 24 hour news stations and sensationalism becoming such a norm that there is no swinging back of the pendulum because the rubber band is simply broken. I wonder if I could ever bring myself to watch “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” considering where we have gone with politics in general.

Gottesman Libraries does own a copy of “Citizen Kane” in the closed stacks if you wish to request it. It is a VHS copy, so if you do not own a VCR (which is becoming increasingly likely), you may want to rent it on DVD through either a rental service or store. This is in case you have not seen it and wish to dispute my assessment of the film.

I have not seen all of the works of Orson Welles. However, I have seen “Touch Of Evil” and I found that to be infinitely more interesting than “Kane.” There is a 50th anniversary edition which contains 2 discs and 3 versions of the film: the “Theatrical Version” that was released in 1958, the “Preview Version” which was released a little before the theatrical, but not available until 1976, and finally the “Restored Version” which is a 1998 version that attempts to address the complaints that Welles brought up when the film was altered for theatrical release. This was done in his absence, so it was a 1998 interpretation of a 40-year-old memo.

I have only watched the “Restored Version,” because that sounded like the most ideal one (even if it was not a true director’s cut). The opening shot goes on for four minutes straight. Instead of a big orchestral theme at the beginning of the film, we get the music and sounds from the passing cars and the bars as the camera rolls past. This was apparently altered in other versions of the film. We see the bomb planted on a car and we follow it along until it blows up on the other side of the US-Mexico border.

We get a fascinating palate of characters: Charlton Heston as the honest Mexican narcotics officer(!) sent to investigate the assassination, Janet Leigh as his outspoken wife, and Orson Welles as the corrupt and slovenly policeman from the American side of the border. The film is vintage film noir, which I am slightly biased towards in terms of genre preferences. So you get the play on shadows, the griminess and seediness of corrupt law officials and the criminals that roam freely, the frantic pursuits, and ultimately a resolution that does not turn out well for too many characters. One of the techniques I really enjoyed was the perspective of a person kneeling on the ground looking up. This would be used a lot in the science fiction/horror movies that followed shortly that lasted into the 1960s. It heightened the sense of panic and fear experienced concurrently by the ensuing chases. Welles chews up the scenery pretty nicely with his disheveled appearance, constant wolfing of candy bars, and verbal abuse that he gleefully distributes all around him. I’m thinking that Tim Burton might have channeled this character just a little bit for Lt. Eckhardt in his 1989 release of “Batman.” Both are hefty men wearing a trenchcoat and in need of a shave, and speak in a low growling voice.

Andre Bazin wrote a thin book called “Orson Welles: A Critical View” which is available in the main stacks. Francois Truffaut notes in the forward that Welles “deliberately makes himself old in Touch of Evil, [but] his camera takes on the ardor of a young man. Each shot reveals a love of cinema and a pleasure in making it.” (p.19) He goes on to mention that this film would influence the works of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. Truffaut goes on to mention that this movie was shot in only five weeks! Bazin’s take on the movie is that it is the “fulfillment of previous experiments in filming” and points out the “velocity of movement” of the characters in the film. (p.129-130) He also compares this movie to “Kiss Me Deadly,” saying that the relation of the two is the “master’s work to his disciple’s” (p.123).

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Discovering Orson Welles” (available as an e-book at TC library) sheds more light on the metamorphosis of the different versions of “Touch of Evil.” Chapter 6 (“Prime Cut”) and Chapter 21 (“Touch of Evil Retouched”) are very specific on the alterations and receptions this movie experienced. Welles was given complete creative control in his early works — perhaps what happened here was a continual backlash that he experienced once the studios had grown disenchanted with his methodology given the perceived failures that had followed his huge successes. After he finished shooting the film and went to another location to begin another, the editors and studio swarmed in and made their cuts and timeline changes.

Despite the interesting past and constant revisions, “Touch Of Evil” is a solid movie. I cannot vouch for the other two versions (I will watch them in the near future), but the 1998 release is definitely worth checking out. Even “Citizen Kane” is worth seeing once just to see the changes in almost two decades of film making.  I know we are talking about the difference between a drama and a film noir. However, one requires caffeine, and the other should work naturally.