The Parallax View: Smart Words About Cinema blog has today published a brilliant review of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958): Touch of Evil: Crossing the Line by Robert C. Cumbow. This essay is the best on this problematic film that I have read.
I was particularly struck by Cumbow’s analysis of the famous opening take:
“In establishing this matrix of border crossings, Touch of Evil’s celebrated opening shot… [in order] …To see why the opening shot is cinematically, stylistically, and thematically necessary, we need only consider how the opening sequence would seem if the opening were not a single take, but a series of briefer shots edited together. The sequence’s – and the film’s – whole concept of time and space would be irretrievably damaged. For if there were cuts between the time a shadowy figure puts the bomb into the car and the time it explodes, we would not know how long the bomb had been ticking, or how long it took the car to get from that parking garage to the border. Nor would we know how far it was from one place to another. And an understanding of the geography of that border town is as crucial to Touch of Evil as is its treatment of the time frame within which the events occur.”
Concidentally, this morning I started re-reading V.F. Perkins’ book, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (Penguin, London, 1972), and on reading Cumbow’s essay later in the day, I immediately recalled this telling passage from the book where Perkins discusses the long take in the context of Andre Bazin’s critique of montage as the basis of film theory: “Directors like jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and William Wyler had to a large extent renounced editing effects in order to explore the dramatic possibilities of an uninterrupted continuity in pace and time.“.
The tension of the long fluid opening shot in Touch of Evil would perhaps also have been lost if the shot was broken-up by editing.