Have you ever seen cinematic perfection? It's a lofty thought to toss around, but perfection, masterpiece, and Orson Welles are all words that go well together. So, look no further then the opening sequence to Orson Welles' 1958 noir, Touch Of Evil. Why? Because it is a layered, technical achievement. Because it's a perfect combination of cinematic flair, narrative efficiency, and organic mise-en-scene. And because it is filled with excitement and intrigue. It's a great film on the whole, but this establishing shot/sequence is so full of detail that it alone is worth analyzing. Watch the clip, then maybe read my short analysis. Then watch it again!
We begin with a dark close-up of a time bomb, an assassin holds it, almost showing it off to the camera. His hand comes into frame and sets the timer. Who's arming the bomb? Who is the bomb intended for? Where are we? A woman laughs in the background, the assassin spins away offscreen, and the camera twists up, and we see that it's nighttime, and, nearby, a woman and a man, walk down an alley towards us. Welles immediately makes us complicit in the scene; we've seen the bomb, we know someone is going to get it, and that first camera move makes it seem as though we are actually in the point of view of a second assassin, a silent observer. The assassin holding the bomb re-enters the frame, spots his target, and watches the couple walk around a corner. He must act now! He runs past the camera, we follow as he dips out of sight, his shadow dances across the screen (I think this is my favorite part). We move forward, following the shadow to the trunk of a convertible car. The assassin deposits the bomb in the trunk and disappears! The camera, impossibly somehow, lifts off the ground, we see the whole scene in birds eye view--still the original shot!--and the couple gets into the convertible and drive off. Oh no!
The camera stays locked on to the car, and the bomb, even as it passes behind a building. The car radio is on, playing a swanky jazz track--Welles is so aware of sound in this film--and becomes a great measure for how close we are to the doomed. We know that bomb is still ticking! The car turns onto a bustling main street, slowly driving towards us as the camera slowly recedes--keeping a distance between us and the bomb!--while people walk in the street, on the sidewalks, and other cars drive past. A traffic control officer stops the convertible, but the camera continues to move backwards--almost drawing the destiny of the convertible, broadcasting it's future. A street vendor pushes his cart across the street. The convertible resumes its course and nears the camera. Another officer stops it again to allow a couple cross the street. We begin following this new couple, who are they? Why, it's Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh... but, oh no, they're walking the same way the bomb car is going! The car motors ahead, offscreen, and we stay with Heston and Leigh.
They continue walking, laughing and whispering in each others ears like a new, young couple. They catch up to the convertible and walk past it again, and... a small herd of goats! In the city? We must be in somewhere rural! Maybe someplace like a Mexican bordertown? They continue walking, that bomb car still menacingly close in the background--still the same unbroken shot. More people are now on screen--more potential innocent victims! We near a busy border post--the car still looming behind--and a voice calls out to the couple, beginning some short and efficient dialogue [which establishes a lot of information quickly: my notes in italics].
Border Guard: "Uh, you folks American citizens?"
Leigh: "I am, yes." [But he's not.]
Border Guard: "Where were you born, Miss?" [Miss?]
Leigh: "Mrs.! ... Philadelphia!"
They pull out their passports.
Heston: "Vargas, the name's Vargas." [Ah, Vargas, that's his name. He's Mexican!]
Border Guard: "Hey Jim, you see who's here?" [He's famous!]
Border Guard 2: "Sure! Mr. Vargas. Hot on the trail of another dope ring?" [He's a famous detective/D.A./lawyer!]
Heston: "Hot on the trail of a chocolate soda... for my wife!" [He cares for his wife, Mrs. Vargas! And seperates his business from his family life.]
Border Guard: "Your wife?"
Leigh: "Sure, barely a bride!" [Newlyweds!]
Border Guard 2: "A lot of talk up here about how you cracked that Grandi business." [Oh-ho, he's done some shaking down, maybe he's made enemies?]
Border Guard: "Yeah, heard you caught the big boss!" [Their big boss?! He's definitely made some enemies!]
Heston: "Only one of them, the Grandi's are a big family! Good night." [A whole family of enemies!]
So, parameters in place, lawman Heston walks off to the sidewalk with his new wife, and the convertible drives through the checkpoint, the guards ushering it through without commotion as the woman sitting shotgun complains about having a ticking noise in her head(!!). The car drives off screen, and we push in on Mr. and Mrs. Vargas on the sidewalk
Mrs. Vargas: "Mike, do you realize that this is the first time we've been together, in my country?"
Mr. Vargas: "Do you realize I haven't kissed you in over an hour?"
They kiss, and off-screen:
So there ends a nearly three and a half minute shot which sets up the the film in three ways. Firstly, narratively, by including information about who these people are, what their relationship might be like, who their enemies might be, where they are, and that this is a lively and dangerous place (people are getting car-bombed for Pete's sake!). Second, technically, it's obviously brilliant as well. Long takes always require careful and elaborate lighting, precise rehearsals, and committed actors. Check, check, check. On top of that, we have a very complex camera movement which works flawlessly with its subjects, both Mr. and Mrs. Vargas, and the bomb car, but still allowing us to see plenty of their surroundings. And thirdly, it stylistically establishes the film. We are brought into a vibrant border town, somehow both so full of life yet so noir, replete with shadows and tinny bongos playing in the distance, a world of dark alleys and darker rooftops, a world of mystery and intrigue, where criminals can plant car bombs and no one is safe!
No one is safe!
Want to watch it again?
The film itself is a masterpiece as well, with some excellent performances by Welles himself as Quinlan, a limping, corrupt, racist, obese, and alchoholic detective, and Marlene Deitrich as a Mexican prostitute Quinlan used to shack up with. Charlton Heston isn't bad either.
An almost unrecognizable Orson Welles as Detective Quinlan.
This film was famously taken away from Welles by the studio, and re-edited, and once Welles saw the version they had re-cut, he went home and type an impassioned 58-page memo detailing all the ways they had destroyed his film. Now, however, after many years of only the studio version, a cut of the film has been re-edited per Welles' notes, and this apparently is the closest to his original version that you can get. Go rent it!