Friday, March 14, 2014

Orson Welles' two films, Touch of Evil (1957), The Maginificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil

My first Orson Welles movie was F for Fake, which I saw at the 1978 Filmotsav i then Madras (now Chennai). It appeared a bewildering and interesting film. This week I picked up the DVDs of two of his films, Touch of Evil (1957), from the American Centre library and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) from the British Council Library. Touch of Evil stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh apart from Welles himself. The plot is almost ordinary, the usual cop and crook stuff. But Welles uses the small town gangster film format to expose the villainous district attorney played by Welles and the chiaroscuro impact of good and evil played out in the film in form light and shadows, with the shadows looming large in the frames. Welles is fond of telling a dramatic story in a Shakespearean sense and he does not mind overplaying the characters and situations. Welles admirers seem to overlook the fact of the Welles' narrative commentary on American life.
Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil

There is no doubt that as a master filmmaker, Welles uses a particular scene for the maximum impact of conveying his point, the emotional and social tensions of the those characters peopling the story of the movie. He is a formalist in a certain sense but his sense of form is subordinated to the compulsive need he feels to portray American life and values and also make his comment on it. The law officer as the outlaw is shown ass part of an ordinary situation in a far-off small place, which assumes larger-than-life proportions. This is a movie that you like to see again and again because the scenes are taut and there is a certain beauty in this tautness.
In The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles is again engaged in a telling a story and making a point about the changes in the social and economic scene of small town America, and how individuals adapt or ail to adapt to this change. Welles portrays the Amberson family with its notion of superiority and a sense of aristocracy and how it breaks down in the face of a society that is moving into the industry phase and the automobile serves as the apt metaphor.

Tim Holt, Dolores Costello and Joseph Cotten in The Magnificent Ambersons

The character of George Amberson played well by Tim Holt shows on a small scale the megalomaniac tendency of the individual, and takes a painful time to connect with the people around him. There is a combination of Hamlet and Macbeth in the character of George, unbending, rigid and tragic in his approach to the world.
In this film too Welles uses to perfection his dramatic sense in the way he frames his scenes, individuals playing their lives out in light and shadow, dwarfed in some ways by the urban landscape, which transforms from the familiar and cosy to towering and imposing.

A scene from The Magnificent Ambersons

The curious thing about The Magnificent Ambersons is that Welles uses the technique of the radio announcement to give the credits of actors and technicians at the end. This is a device that Francois Truffaut uses in Fahrenheit 451 in his film version of the Ray Bradbury story in 1966.
These two movies establish Welles as the serious social commentator through the medium of films.

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