Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) is showing May 6 - June 5, 2018 in many countries around the world; and The Trial (1962) is showing May 6 - June 5, 2018 in the United States.
Whether he was operating as an assured-beyond-his-years novice or, later, directing a major Hollywood production—or, as was more often the case, working independently with a sporadic allotment of time and money—Orson Welles was nothing if not consistent when it came to formal ingenuity. While Citizen Kane (1941) is the frequently cited pillar of this expressive impulse, Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and The Trial (1962) are perhaps the most representative titles of his visual disposition in the service of psychological reflection. Mirroring character consciousness as much as it inspires viewer acuity, Welles’ elevation of set design, sound, editorial tempo, camera movement and placement all serve the purpose of enriching the respective film, while also surmounting budgetary restraints and managing to endure (most) ensuing studio interference. Though he would have likely scoffed at the suggestion certain shots inherently mean something, the impact of this formula is nevertheless embedded on the screen, enlivening these gripping films in a way that has seldom been matched.
Other than the web of post-production malfeasance—Universal re-cutting the picture, manipulating the score, and dropping the film to the bottom half of a double bill—discussion around Touch of Evil usually starts with its audacious opening shot, a three-minute, twenty-second triumph of cinematic strategy. The close-up of a bomb, triggered with a timer and placed under the car of industrialist Rudy Linnekar (Jeffrey Green), pulls back and expands to a vast, mobile tapestry, until the shot ends with an explosive kiss between Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement official, and his new bride, Susie (Janet Leigh). This sequence is, of course, great to look at, as one observes it with equal parts aesthetic delight and methodical gee-whiz, but as was often the case when Welles was at his best, it comes down to more than sheer technique.
The arrangement builds, develops, and amplifies the atmosphere, exposing the vibrant corridors of Los Robles, a seedy Mexican-American border town (actually Venice, California), as well as its ease of access, a permissible flurry key to the film’s cross-cultural, cross-national quarrel. Yet despite the bleating goats, drubbing music, revving cars, and chattering people, the unbroken take conforms to a controlled vision of bustling nightlife, indicating by its seamless construction a carefully composed management of space and time. So, when the bomb explodes, and Welles reverts to handheld pandemonium, the clean break from ordered progression signals a stylistic and narrative disruption. After Touch of Evil descends into uncertain criminal chaos, filled with fire, smoke, and sirens, the visual accord generated by the film’s sweeping introductory advance is never to be seen again. That ostensible harmony is gone.
The Trial opens with less intricate flourish, but its launch is still critical to Welles’ establishment of tone and that film’s own fundamental premise. Adapted from Franz Kafka’s paranoid source, The Trial commences with a “pin-screen” preamble, created by the artist Alexandre Alexeieff, which illustrates Kafka’s “Before the Law” parable. Aside from its relevance in terms of rebuking inexplicable, convoluted regulations, this allegory initiates the dream logic of the story to come. Whereas Touch of Evil conveys a heightened authenticity still grounded in reality, the experience of The Trail is one of surreal delirium. The absurdity is ubiquitous, and not necessarily limited to the mind’s eye of Josef K., a meek, affable bank cashier played by the perfectly cast Anthony Perkins. When strangers besiege his apartment, K. assumes them to be policemen, an assumption neither confirmed nor denied but rather, like much else in the film, curiously evaded. As K.’s frustration mounts, and the apparent conspiracy absorbs his landlady, Mrs. Grubach (Madeleine Robinson), and neighbor, Miss Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), Welles’ extended takes magnify the pressure, providing no sense of graphic relief; contrary to the dramatic first cut of Touch of Evil, which is jarring and upsetting, the prolonged sequence-shots that activate The Trial increase the strain to the point where each cut feels like a fleeting reprieve. As The Trial unfolds with an eccentric flow, moving from room to room while K. attempts in vain to settle the situation, Welles subtly fosters a forward momentum encumbered by circuitous dialogue and restricted interior settings.
Like the unnerving, authoritative glares of these imposing intruders, the literal and figurative realm of The Trail is both intimidating and captivating. After planned sets in Yugoslavia failed to materialize, Welles was essentially left stranded in Paris with nowhere to film, until a vision of the empty Gare d’Orsay railway station provided a spark of symbolic inspiration. He “discovered the world of Kafka.” “Not only is it a very beautiful location,” he stated, “but it is full of sorrow, the kind of sorrow that only accumulates in a railway station where people wait. …And the story is all about people waiting, waiting, waiting for their papers to be filled. It is full of the hopelessness of the struggle against bureaucracy. Waiting for a paper to be filled is like waiting for a train, and it's also a place of refugees.” Here Welles could construct the sprawling office of K.’s ambiguous trade, a teeming backdrop with an endless multitude of secretaries droning away at their judiciously aligned desks. The camera tracks along this dauntingly geometric layout and cranes above to augment its staggering expanse. Meanwhile, deeper into the crevasses of this corporate assembly, Welles supplants massive stacks of notebooks and binders and towering filing cabinets, all purposefully organized into a paradoxical disarray, designed to confuse and overwhelm as an outward representation of K.’s bewilderment and the cause for his swelling exasperation. Space in The Trail is decorous, but as if forming from the cluttered mind of K. himself, it is also claustrophobic, realized in canted angles, expressionist lighting, and a disorienting depth of field.
The room housing Hastler (Orson Welles), a law advocate mostly confined to his lavish sickbed, is similarly inundated by a fragmented, labyrinthian network of property with no end and no beginning. Consequently, The Trial generally appears as if in a spatiotemporal no man’s land, where people are out of place and the setting is inhospitable and inhuman. Characters squeeze through passageways, stages raise others to absurd heights, and a tangled, feverish parade of contorted, distended faces populate contorted, distended places. One reflects the other and back again. The pointed streaks of light, deployed by cinematographer Edmond Richard, illuminate low, ominous angles, which express a baroque manipulation of normalcy. Climaxing in a twisting stairway pursuit, where K. is hounded by a throng of clamoring, screaming girls, The Trial tortures its hero with prying eyes and protruding fingers. Even when K. manages to slip away, dashing down an enclosed tunnel, through horizontal slats of light, the headlong pace is deceptive, getting him nowhere fast and returning the picture to the mocking admittance of Kafka’s frustrating parable.
Outside, The Trial is mostly dominated by broad exteriors, vague landscapes that are bland and barren, save for looming, gloomy residential structures. But as Welles emphatically shows, a forbidding emptiness can prove just as daunting as a great hall of murmuring conspiratorial onlookers. This notion is even more threatening in Touch of Evil, where Welles opens the interiors by presenting, or at least suggesting, an intrusive, always active setting, with pulsating neon lights, an extraneous musical soundtrack, and evasive figures in the dark. Crowded rooms are enlarged by reflective surfaces, producing layers of background extension, while long takes offer Welles the freedom to coordinate bodies in motion and contention, locked in dynamic inter-frame power struggles. In the streets, an all-pervasive peril is augmented by shadows stretched out on walls and by characters bursting forth from darkened alleyways. Character vulnerability is illuminated by voyeuristic flashlights piercing holes in private chambers, by uncovered widows where the inside is looking out and the outside looking in, and by images of limitless isolation, like a single motel in the desert desolation, where the camera raises up to reveal… nothing.
Like The Trial, Touch of Evil enfolds a world of grotesque close-ups and obscured bodies, in settings where people appear out of sorts and out of place. It can be a lumbering, intoxicated Quinlan, engorged in even a wider shot, or a crawling, climbing Vargas, slinking amongst a metallic apparatus as pounding oil rigs punctuate the ends of the earth and a point of no return. Welles has a way of integrating characters into their analogous environment—see the ostentatious Charles Foster Kane and his correspondingly grandiose Xanadu, for example, or the Ambersons’ rise and fall as represented by the state of their immoderate manor—but in these films, the characters also appear in opposition to their setting: Perkins’ tall, lanky build is unstable in the crushing grid of modern officialdom, his full-bodied anxiety personifying the unease, while the oversized stature of Welles’ Quinlan eats up the frame like the overweight officer would devour one of his candy bars, or better yet, some chili. In other cases, Marlene Dietrich’s Tanya appears beyond elegant, shrouded in impeccable soft light and cigarette smoke, a stunning reminder of Quinlan’s once charismatic desire, while the bulbous Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) is stuffed in the tightness of his own heated intensity. Leigh’s Susie gets the best and worst of this compositional correlation. Early on, she holds her own in a two-shot with Grandi, confidently face to face with this pompous thug, but later, as darkness moves across her panic-stricken face and bodies eclipse the camera, Welles can only retreat from her room and slam the door shut, returning to the scene of this “wild party” only after a jet-black night has cloaked its torrid remains.
Based on Whit Masterson’s mystery novel “Badge of Evil,” Touch of Evil was a late-cycle entry in the traditional noir canon, but it deploys many of the genre’s familiar devices, like a swinging light getting smacked to convey associative violence, or the way cinematographer Russell Metty adds to the chiaroscuro hysteria with wide-angle views that are enhanced but also abnormal. In both Touch of Evil and The Trial, though, by means of rudimentary wheelchair dollies or car-mounted platforms, Welles masters a lively hub of fluctuating space, exhibiting what Damian Cannon refers to as “spatial choreography,” in which “every position and movement latches together into a cogent whole.” Visually cogent, that is, for both films also indulge in occasionally meandering narratives swarming with an extensive cast of not entirely relevant characters. Yet that hardly matters. As Peter Bogdanovich once told Welles when discussing Touch of Evil, “I’d seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story.” Welles didn’t exactly appreciate the comment, but what Bogdanovich clarified holds true, and is a large part of why these two films remain so captivating: “I was looking at the direction.”