A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

For a forthcoming review, I recently read the third volume of Simon Callow's projected four-volume biography of Orson Welles, in which Callow says, "murky though the world it discloses may be, every frame of Touch of Evil celebrates the art of film." I think that's exactly right, and it may be why so many of us love it -- and why it leaves many others cold. Touch of Evil is as mannerist as a Caravaggio painting, a dazzling demonstration of style and technique that takes precedence over character, over narrative, even over the performers on screen. The movie is, again in Callow's words, "mercurial, fluid, inventive, constantly morphing stylistically in dream-like fashion." Who else but Welles could have made so much of Charlton Heston in brown-face as a Mexican cop? Who else would have scattered so many familiar faces, from Akim Tamiroff to Zsa Zsa Gabor, throughout a film without turning it into a gallery of cameos? Who else would have encouraged Dennis Weaver to give such a hilariously jittery over-the-top performance? And is there a better curtain line than the one spoken by Marlene Dietrich as the bloated corpse of Hank Quinlan (Welles) lies wallowing in the canal: "He was some kind of a man.... What does it matter what you say about people?" It's a film populated by grotesques -- even the "normal" people like Vargas (Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh) have something askew about them. The only authentic human emotion on display in the movie is that of Menzies (Joseph Calleia), whose love for Quinlan comes to such a bad end. What we see today is a restoration, made in 1998 in a laudable act of corporate responsibility by Universal, which had botched the release of the movie 40 years earlier. It follows the suggestions made by Welles himself in a 58-page memo after Universal hacked up the original release version. Among other things, the restoration removed the credits that had been superimposed over the celebrated three-minute, 20-second tracking shot that begins the film. The restoration also allows us to see Russell Metty's cinematography in pristine condition.

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