Last month, we began a conversation with Brandon Ryan, the curator behind Central Cinema’s Night and Day: Classic and Modern Film Noir series, wherein we talked about and around film noir, in general, and specifically about the first two entries in the series, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Rian Johnson’s Brick. The ongoing conversation will be a regular feature while the series is ongoing.
This month, we continue the conversation with Ryan, first by defining his criteria for what makes a film noir, and then delving into the convoluted and controversial production history behind the first of September’s offerings: Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a film both Ryan and the Star’s José Amador consider to be one of the finest in the genre. The conversation begins after the series’ trailer.
Seattle Star: Before we start talking about this month’s movie, let’s get some definitions out of the way, in order to establish a shorthand to be used the further we talk about these films. How do you define film noir? What are the defining characteristics you use in order identify it as a noir?
Brandon Ryan: To me, film noir is not really a genre, but is rather defined by its stylistic qualities of tone and mood. Classic film noir belongs to a particular period of film history, the early 1940’s and 1950’s. It was a direct reaction to that specific time period. The country was dealing with war and postwar disillusionment, Hollywood was running low on resources and couldn’t afford to make as many big studio films, paranoia and panic was ushered in with the age of the atomic bomb. These real world problems were reflected and heightend by a film noir world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption.
So, in addition to unsettling narrative themes of ambiguity and violent death, certain stylistic characteristics immediately come to my mind when discussing film noir. Stark, angular shadows. The isolated feel of modern cities. Conflicted anti-heroes and terse dialogue. Determined, beautiful, scheming women known as the femme fatale. As I mentioned before, film noir is more of a visual style or movement than a genre in and of itself. Which is why it is sometimes hard to lock down certain movies. If you look at this list of key elements you can find an argument to include a numerous spectrum of films that might not be technically considered to be part of the film noir cannon. Especially in the modern neo noir era, where the palate becomes much more broader and certain genres are expanded upon with the interchangeable noir elements. Those elements are:
The Crime Thriller/Mystery/Gangster/Heist Movie
A morally ambiguous protagonist/Anti-Hero/Detective
A Femme Fatale
An Urban City
Low/High angle tiltled deep focus cinamatography
The use of stark lighting with an emphasis on shadows
Liberal use of red herrings or Macguffins
SStar: Thanks, we may get back to that definition later on. Let’s talk about Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. I suspect I know the answer to this already, but which version of Evil are you showing?
BR: Orson’s version, buddy boy.
SStar: There’s really only one valid answer to that question, though it leads us with several threads to pick up. Let’s get the academic stuff out of the way: Touch of Evil has what is possibly the quintessential “troubled production” story, though there have been many before and since. What’s your take on that story? What led to the battles Welles went through with the studio?
BR: After Welles’ first Hollywood contract (which essentially gave a 25 year old kid who had never made a film before carte blanche), he was basically mistreated for the rest of his life, regardless of contracts or studio promises. Even though Citizen Kane is heralded as a classic, it was a huge failure at the time because William Hearst used the power of his publishing empire to blacklist the film throughout the country. The film was still considered brilliant at the time, but few people saw it.
RKO used that leverage to take away Welles’ next film The Magnificent Ambersons while he was away on assignment. This resulted in the studio removing about 50 minutes of footage our of Ambersons, cutting the run time down to 82 mins. Welles was soon let go by RKO, and he struggled within the system for the rest of his career. The Ambersons footage was lost forever, so we are unable to experience Orson’s version of that. Touch of Evil has a similar story, but with a much better ending for cinephiles.
Much of Welles’ later career consisted of him being an artist-for-hire so he could fund his passion projects. This was the case with Evil; Welles hadn’t worked with a Hollywood studio for a while due to persistent, recurring creative differences and constant struggles with studio heads. So, this was a way back into the system that had been constantly rejecting him.
As far as I know the shooting of the film went very smoothly and the studio was beyond estatic about the daily rushes that they were recieving. However, as was typical for Welles’ Hollywood history, Universal took the film out of his hands after he had spent about three months in the cutting room. As Welles was the first to admit, he worked very slowly when he was editing. He once said, “I could work forever on the editing of a film. I don’t know why it takes me so much time, but that has the effect of arousing the ire of the producers, who then take the film out of my hands.”
So, the studio took the film away, barred Welles from the editing room , did some minor reshoots and submitted their own cut. This led to the infamous fifty-eight page memo that he wrote to Universal’s head of production detailing the edits he thought would help fix the picture. They memo was ignored, the picture released as part of a double bill, and the American public didn’t go see it. That was the last Hollywood film Welles would ever direct.
The 93 minute studio cut stood as the definitive version until portions of the memo were published in the early 90’s, and lost footage was discovered in the Universal Studios archive. The memo was then used as a guideline to restore Welles’ original vision as closely as possible. This version was released in 1998.
SStar: About the only thing that could be said for the studio version is that their alternate opening sequence does heavily feature Henry Mancini’s latin-influenced score for the movie. While it completely misses the point behind, and muddies the effect of, the mise en scene Welles was aiming for, it establishes a dark mood for the proceedings. Whether that spoils the suspense in the scene or merely complements it is something the academics will debate over.
SStar: Which Welles film noir would you rank higher, Evil or The Third Man (acknowledging that Third Man was directed by Carol Reed and written by Reed and Graham Greene)?
BR: Darn you…I would say Touch of Evil. It hits on so many things. Close call, though. As you say, The Third Man lacks Welles’ overall touch, since he was just an actor for hire on that one; with the exception of the ferris wheel speech, which he did write.
The dutch angles and the zither score are pretty frikkin’ amazing, and I love Joseph Cotten as the hapless protagonist. But, Evil is an Orson Welles film through and through, he is an auteur in the finest sense for that movie. Plus the elements just intrigue me more; the moral decay and corruption that flows through Evil makes The Third Man seem so much more tame in comparison. I don’t mean that thematically, its just that Welles’ film delves into the seedy underbelly of this world, while The Third Man is much lighter in tone and execution. I think that’s mainly due to the upbeat nature of the score. That Anton Karas can sure make a zither sound happy and awesome.
SStar: I honestly can’t pick between the two films. I agree with your take on Evil, but the lightness in tone you talk about makes Third Man‘s impact all the more chilling. The characters are being cavalier about circumstances that have very dire results. When that finally sinks in, buttressed by Welles’ speech at the ferris wheel, the result is like a Kubrick-ian coldness. I would say that the difference lays in the fact that Evil is a profoundly American noir, while Third is a profoundly European one.
BR: True, it’s got that Hitchcock-ian thing going for it. Harry Lime is actually a monster, diluting penicillin and then selling it on the black market to the populace. Children are dying as are adults. But, he is so frikkin’ charming that it keeps the film off balance. Much like the dutch camera angles.
Tangentially, that’s what Hitchcock was best at, making his villains so charming that you felt sympathetic towards them — to the point that when you see them committing acts of unspeakable horror, you feel frightened that they might get caught. They should of course, but they’re so damn charming that you feel bad for them and you kind of don’t want them to.
The ‘Norman Bates tries to dump the car’ scene in Pyscho is a perfect example. We know Norman Bates is a killer, but the mere fact that he might not get away with it because that stupid car might not sink into the swamp is incredibly exhilarating. We now associate with the villain, he’s odd and charming and childlike with his candy corn eating habit. We must protect him. Same thing with Orson in The Third Man.
SStar: What are the odds on seeing The Third Man in the series?
BR: It’s slated for December along with Dark City!
SStar: Excellent. It’s worth noting that Welles flips that sympathetic script around for Evil. [Mild spoilers ahead; additional warnings will appear prior to major revelations.-ed]
BR: Indeed he does. He goes full-tilt boogie on the evil. Again though, it is slightly justified. Because we the audience find out how Quinlan, the villain, came to this point in his personal and professional life. He is a good cop, but he has just been in the system for far too long. I imagine that you create your own moral universe when you’ve seen what he has seen. [End spoilers.]
SStar: He is so repellant, that the idea of his having a human side makes him sadder.
BR: Yep, it makes his fall from grace…from life..that much more shocking to the core. That’s what makes things like Heath Ledger’s Joker work as well. His is a maniacal creature, but his intelligence and life of instinctual decision-making makes him something of a genius. He says that he is simply a dog chasing cars without a plan, but he very much lives by a code that fights against oppresion. He isn’t corrupt in the same way most villians are. He cares not about money, he is just a child of anarchy, someone fighting against the norm, raging against the dying of the light, if you will. That’s what makes him so relatable; that he stands up to his own verisons of authority. Plus, Ledger’s performance was just fearless and brilliant, much like Welles in Evil.
SStar: Wait, you consider Dark City a film noir, then?
BR: I totally do. Again, when it comes to modern films, the scope of what is in the noir canon is much broader. The genres become much grander, and I completly put Dark City in the modern day neo noir catagory. Here’s the IMDB description: “While trying to piece together his past, he stumbles upon a fiendish underworld controlled by a group of beings known as The Strangers, who possess the ability to put people to sleep and alter the city and its inhabitants.”
All the tropes and elements I talked about before are there. Piecing together a puzzle with an amnesiac protagonists; gritty underworld setting; wonderful lighting and compostion. Keifer Sutherland doing an homage to Peter Lorre. It’s totally a film noir world, wrapped up in a SciFi bow.
SStar: Well, I see what you mean about the trappings, but I never considered it a film noir.
BR: It’s awesome, I have the director’s cut, but I’ve yet to watch it. It’s completely stylized like a 40’s film set, against all of this alien city shifting noise. Director Alex Proyas makes interesting film noir-themed films like that. Mainly this and The Crow, which is another amazing example. A comic book noir revenge flick love story.
SStar: It definitely mixes the fantastical with noir settings. Back to Evil, the movie is rightly celebrated by people who love film. It has all the hallmarks of a quality Welles production–
BR: It sure does, buddy boy!
SStar: …skillful camera work, great script…
BR: Phenomenal acting, mainly Welles. And Heston is not bad, I’ve never liked him and he’s quite effective in this.
SStar: It is remarkably easy to buy him as a Mexican cop, after the initial “WTF”.
BR: It’s tolerable, let’s just say that.
SStar: Well, thankfully, we don’t spend every minute with him, and again, we come up against the surreal aspect of many of these movies. There’s some gloriously dissonant stretches in this movie.
BR: Yep, used to such shockingly wonderful effect. Almost like a nightmare, we are slipping further into Hank Quinlan’s own personal hell.
SStar: Janet Leigh in the motel room–
BR: Double ya! Creepy as balls. All the drug noise afterwards, as well. This movie and The Maltese Falcon are my favorite noirs. Evil, by the way, is considered to be the last of the classic film noir movies; it’s fitting that it was an Orson Welles flick, since many of the same techniques and elements are apparent in Citizen Kane. Kane came out the same year that Maltese Falcon did, and is widely attributed to have started this particualr cycle.
SStar: What about Quinlan’s last scene? Who’s the female cameo by again?
BR: What about Quinlan’s last scene, exactly?
SStar: [Mild spoilers.]The thing about it is what we were talking about earlier, regarding the sympathy flip Welles pulls off here.
BR: The cameo was by Marlene Dietrich, she did it as a favor to Welles. Then, the studio found out and wanted to publicize it, but that meant that they would have to pay her an actual salary. Dumb ole studio.
SStar: It’s all about that scene with Dietrich, the pieces all fall into place within less than five minutes.
BR: Yeah, totally. It’s a tragic Shakespearian conclusion. “Oh, how the mighty fall, repent and ye shall be saved” sort of stuff. [Heavy spoiler.] His partner getting shot by him was just heart breaking. [End spoilers.]
SStar: So, why do you think it hasn’t caught on as well as the other classic noirs?
BR: Not sure, exactly. Could be a Welles stigma, or the fact that the definitive version has only been around for 12 years. Perhaps it is just too under the radar. I’m personally worried about getting peeps to see it, just because I don’t think enough people know about it.
The trailer is horrible. It completly paints it like a 50’s exploitation B-film. Watching the trailer at Central Cinema a few days ago was heart breaking. It does nothing to showcase any of the brilliance for people who don’t know any better. It works against it, actually, it shows only one or 2 quick shots of Welles. Mind you, he is not the prettiest thing that will help advertise a movie. But his performance is key to that film, and in white-washing that fact, you completely tear the heart out of that trailer.
SStar: “Told with STARTLING realism!” Not the biggest selling point in the world. Dumb old studios, indeed. Not the first and hardly the last time studios would fuck up the marketing on a film they didn’t understand. Then I remember that Wizard of Oz, Fantasia, Casablanca, and Duck Soup were all commercial flops during their initial release.
BR: I know, suck, huh? Also, why it was a failure when Evil came out. They marketed it horribly, and then they just dumped it. Although, Casablanca not so much. It won the Best Picture Oscar, and was a sizable hit for Warner Brothers. Plus, it turned Bogart into a romantic leading man…the rest are true, though. Huge commercial failures initially.
SStar: I’ll cede the point, though I wonder where I picked up the misconception.
BR: On the streets. It’s all the kids talk about. Sex, drugs and Casablanca.
SStar: Sounds like a fun movie.
BR: I’m writing it right now!
Next week, a discussion on the second movie in September for the Night and Day series, Memento, Christopher Nolan’s breakout head trip of a film.
Touch of Evil, Wednesday September 12, at 9:30p.m. // Central Cinema, 1411 21st Avenue // $6 in advance, $8 at the door