Iconic Shot: TOUCH OF EVIL

by Paul Dunne

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Before I discuss the shot itself, I’d like to give it some context, to justify it as iconic. Before Touch of Evil Orson Welles had been absent from Hollywood for ten years after having been figured as reckless, pompous, and difficult by the major studios. Touch of Evil was framed as his return to the limelight, his comeback and reinstatement into Hollywood. With such enormous expectations and pressures many would crumble or compromise, but not Welles.

What better way to re-announce yourself to the press and public than an unbroken, three minutes and twenty-seconds long tracking shot. Welles ambitiously demanded the world of his cinematographer Russell Metty and he delivered miraculously.

The shot begins with a close-up of a bomb, as a couple walk towards the camera in the distance. Pulling slightly back, we follow the mysterious bomber as he plants the bomb on a car. Pulling further back and high into the sky, we see the couple enter the car and drive between two buildings. The camera tracks the car laterally, matching its movement onto a lively street, while continually zooming out. A host of extras as pedestrians and fellow drivers filter in and out of frame as the couple wait in traffic. The car proceeds forward, approaching the camera before being stopped as another couple crosses the road. The camera lowers and matches the walking pace of this new couple, with the bombed car driving through the frame and past the camera. Another traffic stop places the car in the background with the walking couple as the focus of the frame, until both the car and couple share the frame and the focus. The car finally drives out of frame as we zoom in on the couple as they begin to kiss, syncing with the offscreen explosion of the bomb, ending this incredible long shot.

The crane and camera work of this shot is astounding. The varying paces and heights of the crane in combination with exact focuses, angles and zooms create a gracefully controlled opening that sucks us into Welles’ world before shocking us. Personally, this shot is iconic for me not just for its particular context or its impeccable execution, but for its immersion. The logic of film demands that we believe that are no differences between what lies inside and outside of frame. Welles and Metty deliver on this superbly, showing us everything they can. The opening of Touch of Evil feels real, like a lived in world, and that is what makes it iconic.