Thursday, November 06, 2008

Touch of Evil: Opening Shot

I think this is the most famous tracking shot in the history of the movies: the opening scene of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil". But I'm convinced that the shot is famous for all the wrong reasons.



It's famous mostly because it's such a technical marvel. It's impressive that Welles was able to coordinate and choreograph so many elements and get them all moving at the right time.

But the most important criteria for any shot is whether it's the best choice for telling the story that's being told. And people seem to get hung up on how impressive this tracking shot is, and that distracts everyone from talking about how well it serves the story point being told.

If you picture in your mind this scene full of different shots cut together, you'll realize that if it were assembled that way, you would quickly lose track of which car was the one with the bomb in it. Even if you only showed one car the whole time, I still think that if you did it all in cuts it would be confusing and not nearly as powerful. You would never be sure if, after a cut, you were looking at the same car as the one that we saw at the opening. When it's all one shot, you never lose track of where the car is in relation to the camera and our characters. You never have the audience getting distracted by trying to figure out which car is the one we're supposed to be following. The viewer can therefore focus on the characters and the story being told.

There are other ways to accomplish this same thing, of course: make the car and/or it's passengers distinct enough visually that we would always recognize them, but still, that's not nearly as elegant an approach and besides it would be transparent as to exactly what the film maker was doing, which would be distracting.

Also the tension of the car being where we can see it, then out of our frame of vision, and then back in the frame creates great tension. It makes us nervous when we can't see the car and we don't know exactly where it is. It also makes us nervous when we see it near groups of people. We have no idea when it's going to explode. And again, I think much of this would be lost if we were cutting around.

This version above is from the newly-released version that hews closer to Welles's vision of what the movie ought to be. If you've ever seen the original released version, you may remember that this whole sequence was covered with opening titles, as well as a piece of music written by Henry Mancini. It was Welles's wish that the music during the opening be source music as it is in the version above. The reason for this is very clear, and it's a good one: Welles was trying (I assume) to show the difference between the two sides of the border (one side is America and one side is Mexico) and the source music coming from different nightclubs and cars helps to emphasize the difference between the two sides of the border. The film is all about the difference between the areas north and south of the border and the struggle of the man and wife (who are each from a different side of the border) as they struggle to stay together and not be torn apart by the whirlwind of events that overtake them. So thematically it fits because it's emphasizing the difference between the way the two different areas sound. Also using source music helps it feel like a real world and a real space instead of a studio backlot.

As I always say, one of the most powerful ways to start a movie is to pose a question that the audience wants an answer to. This always helps create interest in the audience and compels them to follow the story. So right away we want to know: when will the bomb go off and what will happen when it does? And we also want to know who planted it and why?

The last thing that's impressive about this shot is how much storytelling is compacting into this one shot and how effortlessly it's done. Here's what you find out: these two (Heston and Leigh) are newlyweds. They come from opposite sides of the border. And he's a detective who breaks up drug rings. He's currently fighting against a drug smuggling operation called the Grandi family.

If you look at the Three Act structure template, Act One is defined as "The exposition (or information) you need before the actual story can start". When the audience has all the information they need about a character's everyday world, then the "inciting incident" happens and their world is thrown out of balance. Then the whole movie is (usually) watching them try to put their life back to where it was before it got messed up.

Well, the explosion at the end of this shot is the "inciting incident"; it leads to Welles's character showing up a minute later and he throws Heston and Leigh out of whackl pretty quickly. So therefore this entire camera move is the Act One of "Touch of Evil", which is pretty impressive. That has to be one of the shortest Act Ones ever, and definitely the only one I know of that's all one shot.

Anything you can do to shorten the exposition your audience has to sit through in the beginning is always advisable and your audience will appreciate it. We all like to get to the action and conflict as soon as possible. And whatever information you're going to make the audience sit through, you would be well served to find a way to make it entertaining as Welles does here right from the first frame of the movie. Bringing conflict and drama into your movie from the opening shot of the film is always a great way to start a film.

Also, I can't help but point out how much depth and space Welles was careful to pack into this shot. This whole movie is made with a great sense of depth: characters constantly moving through the frame from the foreground to the background; characters leaving the frame and their shadows passing through the frame after they've left, etc. The film, now fifty years old, feels like it's got camera work that is still ahead of it's time - very few directors seem interested in using the camera to tell the story in new and exciting ways these days.

There's a new 50-year anniversary set that has three versions of the film, including the one that's "closest" to what Welles might have wanted (but we'll never know for sure) including a recreation of a 58-page memo he wrote after seeing the studio's cut of his movie. "Touch of Evil" is a strange movie on many levels. It has a lot of elements that are really laughable by today's standards. It certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea, but there is definitely a lot to be learned for anyone interested in studying film, staging and how stories can be constructed.

18 comments:

jhand said...

Great analysis Mark, Its great to see those principles that Hitchcock always talked about in creating suspense working so beautifully. It is literally the bomb under the table example.

Mats Halldin said...

Yes, really great analysis! Possibly you could have focused some more on how the jazz music is used to create to flow in the shot -- like when the car starts to move and during the slightly static scene with the police officer directing the traffic. IMHO, the music is actively taking part in telling the story.

Thanks for posting, I'm sure I'll return to it.
/ Mats

Jeremy Elder said...

Well said! A wonderful analysis, and I couldn't agree with you more.

One thing I would like to mention is that it can be permissible to have the inciting incident later on in the story if there is an subplot introduced right away to drive the story forward. For example, Casablanca's inciting incident does not occur until Ilsa enters the club. The audience is okay with this because there are various little plots that start right away, such as the couple trying to obtain exit visas.

Also, giving information/exposition to the audience is a lot less painful if it is dramatized. Casablanca again shines at this. Instead of explaining the situation in Casablanca, it is shown through interactions of the characters. For example, we know that there are unsavory characters in the town because one of them steals a wallet while telling the newcomers to watch out for unsavory characters.

k. borcz said...

Your breakdown here sums up what makes this a great opening scene

galvinator said...

Brilliant analysis. Your blog is excellent. Artwork and articles are always interesting and inspiring. Keep it going.

I'm not a great fan of the Touch of Evil as a whole, but the opening is great.

Another great opening sequence for me is Strangers on a train; intercutting shots of both main characters feet to tonally different atmospheric music until they accidentally kick each other under the table as the train-tracks cross. Cheating a bit, it's not one shot.

But think Hitchcock pulled off one of the best story-telling single shots for the opening of Rear Window - from the window itself looking out into the courtyard, across memorabialia, broken camera-equipment to the stunning dramatic photograph of the car crash to Stewart's foot in plaster.

Anyway, cheers for the article really enjoyed it.

Holger said...

I liked how the camera sometimes pulled back from the car as if in anticipation of the explosion.

Brian McD said...

I have spent years trying to tell people just what you say in this post. Thanks for backing me up.

Wilbert said...

Superb piece again Mark, as always.
1 minor thing: 'Also using source music helps it feel like a real world and a real space instead of a studio backlot.'
TOE wasn't filmed on a back lot but on the streets of Venice CA. Some of the buildings are still there.

Texas Sustainability said...

This tracking shot is referenced in Altman's The Player, and then replicated in an incredible tracking shot of it's own. An homage and a parody in one.

Graham Ross said...

Great job. Personally I love the Henry Mancini music though :(

Anonymous said...

Another reason not to use edits in a scene like this is because edits are often used to foreshorten the progression of time in a film. Given that we see the bomb timer is set with a very short amount of time (3 min?) the lack of cuts allows us to directly track the progression of time remaining. Were there to be cuts, we would never quite be sure how much time had passed or what the state of the bomb's timer is.

Alonso said...

Thanks so much for all of these in depth analysis posts.

Sorry for such a noob question, but what is the advantage to trying to get as much depth as possible into a shot?

Jeremy Elder said...

"what is the advantage to trying to get as much depth as possible into a shot?"

There are a lot of reasons, but one would be making the shot look more dimensional - create a 3D look on a 2D surface. It also helps portray distance and atmosphere among other things...

mark kennedy said...

jhand - thanks - yes, I thought about the "bomb under the table" quote as well...

mats - yes, the music is a big part of it as well. Glad you enjoyed the post.

jeremy - glad you like the post, yes, Casablanca is full of great storytelling and examples. A great film to study for sure.

k - thanks for the comment!

galvinator - yes, those are both great openings, you are right.

holger - yes, very good point!

brian - glad to help!

wilbert - yes, I just meant it might LOOK like a backlot - for anyone interested, there's a shot documentary on the new DVD where Curtis Hanson walks around Venice, CA. showing where it was all filmed.

texas - I haven't seen the film in a while, I'll check it out, thanks!

graham - I actually like the music too but I don't think it fits as well as the source music idea, just for telling the story.

anon -yes, I was trying to say that but didn't find the right words...thanks for posting that's a very good addition!

alonso - not a noob question at all and jeremy gives a good answer! I think a lot of times scenes that are supposed to be humorous are funnier when they're staged very flat, and by correlation, scenes that are dramatic are made better by having a lot of depth to them. Also as jeremy points out it's just more interesting compositionally.

Dave Vasquez said...

I really look forward to your posts that analyze films and this is another great one! Ironically, I just watched this film again the other night so it's great to come across this. Keep up the great work!

keith eager said...

This is fantastically useful information, thank you for posting this! As an animation student it's great to see the real analysis. Your whole blog has been both inspirational and informative.

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