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Touch of Evil (1959) Orson Welles

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This is the final sequence of the film and its ultimate purpose is to show Quinlan’s downfall. Welles cleverly uses sound, lighting and camera work to chart the enormous man’s gradual deterioration and last ditch attempts to save his career.

The first short unit as Quinlan leaves the bordello contains many shots including layers of frames. The first sees Mendiez under an arch in the foreground, behind him a door frame through which we see Quinlan standing in another door frame. This focuses our attention towards Quinlan, making it clear that he is the subject and also suggesting to me a target. The deep focus however also lets us see Mendiez’s face, which is half-lit, suggesting his hidden intentions. The pianola music changes in volume, emphasising the distinction between being inside with Quinlan, or outside with Mendiez. This to me makes the inside seem warm and safe, while the outside, with its quieter atmosphere and harsh footsteps seems more dangerous and cold.

This continues for the rest of the scene. We hear shunting mechanical noises from the oil pumps and wind. This adds to the feeling of vulnerability and helps create the ideal atmosphere for Quinlan’s demise, the cold, mechanical landscape perhaps reflecting the way in which Quinlan has lived his life.

Several other frame shots make Quinlan seem dominating but a fast rising camera to look down upon Quinlan through the arch momentarily makes him look the smallest we have seen him. It is also worth noting that his face has most of the time been fully lit, whereas he has often before had darker side suggested by half-lighting. This could be because at this point Welles want’s to suggest his character’s transition from the hunter to the prey. It is now his partner who has the secret agenda and he is now vulnerable.

Tanya runs to the door and looks out after him, quickly establishing her fears for him and her protectiveness. Since we know that Quinlan is being set up, this could also be seen as our viewpoint.

What follows is Hank and Pete’s conversation as they move through the town from the bordello to the bridge. Although they are the subject of this scene, Welles makes Vargas’s presence strongly felt by cutting between shots of him and the pair, and often showing Vargas in the background. The fact that Welles seems to favour neither point of view in terms of the time the audience spends with each means that neither is suggested to be the “goodie” or the “baddie”. This is important, since up to this point it has been implied that Quinlan is the villain, but now he is the one on the run.

At one point Vargas drops into the partially obscured frame from above. This is just one way that Welles suggests Vargas’s pursuit, and much of the time we see him he is partially obscured by beams or shadow. Such techniques as deep focus help create the feeling that Quinlan is being followed; add to this very high angle long shots of the pair from Vargas’s point-of-view and shots of the Vargas emerging from shadows and stealthily moving back into them, and Welles has allowed the viewer to sympathise with both sides by showing us both. Our support is with Vargas as he struggles to stay out of sight yet within the range of the radio, but also find ourselves nervous for Quinlan who is oblivious to the fact he is being betrayed by who is possibly the closest he has to a friend.

Low angle close-ups of Quinlan make him look huge and dangerous as before in the film, but at this point we can not help but feel sorry for him because we know that his arrogance and misplaced trust are soon to bring about his end. The shots of a concealed Vargas, juxtaposed with the oblivious face of Quinlan induce this feeling in us.

Welles uses the cuts between Vargas and Quinlan and Mendiez to his advantage. He first of all changes the quality of sound in the dialogue to make it clear who we are with. When with Quinlan, the sound is natural and clear, but when we are with Vargas the sound is tinny and radio noises are obvious. This change acts as a bridge between shots, easing continuity and providing the audience with a single thread to lead them through the numerous complicated cuts, but is also useful in creating tension.

When with Vargas, we often hear the whining of the radio losing its signal and the crackle as he struggles to keep up with Quinlan and Mendiez. Welles combines this with close-ups of Vargas hand on the dial to keep the audience wondering whether he will be able to obtain the evidence he needs.

At several points Welles fools us into thinking that Vargas has been spotted, again creating a moment of raised tension which is then released. At one point we are shown Vargas moving high up on the rig behind the pump before hearing Quinlan say suddenly “Look up there”. For a second we believe Quinlan has seen Vargas, especially since the camera stays with Vargas for a second afterwards and we are unable to see what it is Quinlan is pointing out, but tension is released when we realise it is simply the pump. Earlier, Quinlan questions Mendiez about “that thing you’ve been carrying around lately”. There is a pause long enough for us to believe that he is referring to the bug, but are relieved when we hear a sarcastic remark about a halo. Ironically, Mendiez is finally shown bathed in a white light wearing a white shirt.

These points are not isolated, but add to the gradually increasing tension of the piece as a whole. We see Mendiez and Quinlan’s relationship gradually become more strained and the tone of the conversation heightens. Welles uses tightly framed close-ups of the two to suggest confrontation. The frame is like a cell that it is impossible for them both to leave safely. The tension comes to a brief climax when Mendiez shouts “You murdered Grande”, at which point we see a close-up of the receiver and Vargas’s hand withdrawing. The build up through volume of dialogue and this quick cut emphasises the importance of the statement and adds to the drama.

Eventually, the scene reaches the bridge. We see an extreme long shot down the length of the bridge at Quinlan and Mendiez covered in darkness, which suggests an enclosed tunnel, again confrontational. There is a crane shot tracking Vargas down into the darkness under the bridge and then lifting up to a high angle shot of Quinlan and Mendiez walking onto it. This gives the audience a sense of how close the characters are. Several other similar shots show us the size of the bridge, and we notice the darkness shrouding it. This lends a feel of doom and isolation to the bridge, suited to what will happen there.

We see high angle shots of Vargas in the water, and deep focus lets us see all the characters at once. This again emphasises their proximity, so creating a feel of danger since Vargas could easily be seen were Quinlan to look over the edge of the bridge. Now, it is Quinlan who his half-lit and Vargas who is lit fully. This could be in reflection of what Quinlan is confessing to. The harsh contrast between these shots gives a clear distinction between who should be perceived as evil, and who as good.

When Quinlan hears the echo, Welles switches to handheld camera shots of Vargas in the water. This gives a feeling of instability and danger. It places at a much less subjective viewpoint, and makes us feel much more as though we are there. A diagonal shot of the bridge gives a dramatic, disturbed effect, and when Quinlan says “I’ve a feeling he’s someplace around here” we zoom in tightly on the receiver speaker to emphasise the importance of the line and to give a sense of sudden shock.

Another tightly framed shot of Quinlan and Mendiez puts Mendiez at a lower level, again fencing them in and making him look vulnerable. Mendiez is half-shaded, suggesting his deception, but Quinlan is almost completely in darkness. This makes him look threatening, and this is reinforced by a very low angle shot Quinlan, in which he completely dominates the frame.

We hear rather than see the shot that kills Mendiez, which doubles the effect since we are not expecting it at all. It also come at a point when Vargas is moving. This also intensifies the shock since our attention is placed with him rather than the argument we can hear. Welles adds dramatic music at this point, breaking the uneasy silence which he has kept since Quinlan left the bordello. This also adds to the audiences shock.

Mendiez falls to reveal Vargas, as though he is a new enemy. From this point, there are many more extreme long shots of Quinlan, making him look small, and although there are close-ups, he no longer looks as threatening since his facial features are depressed and beaten.

Welles very cleverly places Mendiez’s gunshot at the same point as Quinlan goes to shoot Vargas. This adds a moment of suspense as we think Vargas may have been shot.

Vargas runs to the car, and although the camera is focussed on him and his wife, fully lit, Tanya is visible as a silhouette passing across the camera as she yells “Hank”. This makes her almost unimportant, as though she has not been noticed by the rest of the world. This could be a comment on the way her feelings have been ignored up to this point. We see a shot from Tanya’s point-of-view as Quinlan staggers back and falls into the water.

From here, we see mainly close-ups of Tanya’s face. This is her time to give her opinion, and the audience’s attention is solely on her. Gradually the pianola music fades back in as Tanya turns and walks into the darkness. This final shot gives the film a definitive end, and Tanya disappears as mysteriously as we knew her throughout the film. The music seems contrapuntal to the plot, but leaves the audience satisfied because it is a theme established earlier in the film.

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