AVA 3001: Topics in Film and Media Arts
31 May, 2005
The End of Noir: Orson Welles' Touch of Evil
By 1958, post World War II audiences had grown accustomed to noir sensibilities in film. The same techniques and narratives that shocked people in 1941 became expected norms. The only way to surprise this 'built-up immunity' was to administer a new kind of shock. Touch of Evil set up audiences for a new strain of surprise by playing with the accepted conventions of the film noir.
In many ways Touch of Evil is like any other film noir. A majority of the shots use low key lighting in conjunction with interesting shadows. In Sanchez's apartment, Venetian blinds play a part in lighting. While Susan waits at the hotel, lighting becomes central to the plot as she throws the light bulb at a hoodlum with a flashlight. At Rancho Grandi, a mysterious light pulses during Uncle Joe’s last stand. Welles also skillfully utilizes the deep focus shot, another trademark of noir. While Vargas makes a call from the blind woman's shop, Grandi is seen outside through a window. In the lobby of the hotel, Vargas and his wife, Susan, carry on a conversation in a shot where both face the camera. Vargas, near to the camera, oddly faces away from Susan, with her, in the distance, looking at his back. This type of set up shot was a staple in low budget 'B' films noir. Exchanges such as Quinlan and Tanya's conversation about 'sampling some chili' that 'might be too hot' bring in elements of noir narrative. This story even has two hard-boiled detectives. Both which could ask the question "Why is this happening to me?" and receive the same noir answer.
Welles added his own personal touch to Touch of Evil. Welles employed high and low angle shots like a typical noir. However, with Welles these shots usually imply something other than relative power. In Quinlan's first appearance, he is shot from below. This angle makes him appear larger and helps exaggerate his lumbering gait. To the audience, it suggests he would crush the camera if he lost his balance. At the climax, low angle shots do give the impression of power. First, presenting Quinlan with the supremacy, then, after guns go off, the camera shifts to sympathize with Quinlan, presenting Vargas in low angle shots. Furthermore, techniques such as extremely long shots and use of music are not so much noir as they are Welles. Welles accents chaotic multi-shot scenes with smoother long shots. Similarly, the loud music creates a feeling of anxiety.
Having the basic building blocks of noir does not make a noir. Welles used the noir audience's expectations to create a more fascinating story. The narrative of Touch of Evil is unlike most films noir. There are no flashbacks; the viewer becomes disoriented not by temporal changes but by locale shifts. The basic narrative revolves around equilibrium, disruption, and desire to return to equilibrium. The third person point of view narrative takes away the need for traditional narration by the protagonist and allows the story to follow the lives of several characters. As it seems, Welles used noir to confuse the audience into thinking they were watching a noir.
The biggest tip off to the audience that this is not the typical noir comes from the lack of a 'spider woman'. In place of the femme fatale, this story features three men at odds with each other. In a typical film noir, a female character would antagonize Vargas to the point of homicide. Too late for Vargas, authorities would vindicate Sanchez and Vargas by association.
In a typical film noir, a beautiful antagonist would throw the proletarian man to the wolves. After his death, certain facts would come out making the story all the more tragic. That happened. Welles hid the true tragic hero by making Vargas the outsider, via sympathetic camera movements around Vargas and in making Quinlan appear devious until the end. During the bulk of the narrative, Vargas seems fingered by fate. An explosion cuts short his honeymoon, his wife goes through hell, and Quinlan tries to discredit him as a narcotics addict. Yet, fate is not after Vargas. In the end he walks away from the deaths of two law enforcers blissfully ignorant to Quinlan's justified planting of evidence. Vargas tells Quinlan "You won't have any trouble with me." Both Vargas and Quinlan play double roles a web of two noir narratives. Vargas' ironic statement underscores the rest of the story. While the plot unfolds as a plight for the Vargas family, fate fingers Quinlan for ultimate doom. His character flaws along with the efforts of Vargas cause Quinlan's world to crumble.
This film may not really reflect American views by 1958. This movie's dark out look on life was not the same as America as a whole. By 1958, Americans were becoming happy again. The lack of a spider women character seems to reflect America's slow resolving issue of working women thus eliminating the need for a menacing female role. Overall, Touch of Evil presents a hazardous world for women and men, a world of uncertainty and corruption. Signs of the times lead me to believe people did not feel this way. During the fifties, America experienced a rise in birth rate along with the birth of credit cards and mass consumerism. People were too caught up in the emptiness to worry.