As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.
Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.
I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).
Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:
Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.
I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.
Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)
Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):
Nic Roeg was the subject of an interesting BBC 4 Arena documentary a few weeks ago and it seems like a good time to look at one of his films. Roeg is something of a forgotten auteur in the UK despite directing Don’t Look Now (1973), one of the most revered films in UK cinema history. He has several other significant titles in his list of directorial outings – as well as some very important credits as a cinematographer. However his films since 1980’s Bad Timing have not usually been well-received and his last success was probably The Witches (1990). Even so, I was shocked by the general response to Puffball, a film that isn’t perfect but certainly doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it. In several ways it resembles Don’t Look Now and also has qualities that link it to Roeg’s earlier success Walkabout (1971). I suspect that some of the antipathy towards Puffball (which currently scores 4.3 on IMDB) derives from the original story by Fay Weldon, a story first written in 1980 that does seem ‘out of time’ in some ways and possibly just too ‘female’ for some male audiences (the adaptation was, however, by Weldon’s son Dan).
A puffball is a type of mushroom which can grow into a football-sized white sphere. The spores of this mushroom are formed inside the sphere which then splits when the spores are ready to be released. The resemblance of the puffball to the swollen stomach of a pregnant woman is clear and this is what the film’s narrative utilises as its central visual image. Written originally for an English rural setting, the film adaptation moves to rural Ireland – presumably for funding reasons (the budget comes from soft money funds in the UK, Ireland and Canada). The move doesn’t alter the story in any way except that the sense of rural magic/mythology becomes even more pronounced and for some may be seen as pandering to easy typing of rural Ireland.
Liffey (Kelly Reilly) is an architect and she and her fiancé Richard (Oscar Pearce) have bought an abandoned cottage with the intention of rebuilding it and creating a modern designer house. The cottage originally belonged to a farming family who live close by. Mabs (Miranda Richardson) and Tucker (William Houston) have three daughters and Mabs’ mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) lives in a large caravan parked in the farmyard. The cottage was originally Molly’s home. It isn’t until some way into the narrative that we learn that Molly lost a son in the fire that gutted the cottage. Mabs and Tucker want a fourth child – a boy and Liffey has somehow careered into an emotional narrative. The inciting incident in the narrative is the moment when Liffey and Richard make love on an ancient stone monument close by the cottage (said to be associated with the Norse God, Odin – and, yes, the Vikings did get to Ireland). A puffball grows close by. Liffey becomes pregnant but by now Richard has had to return to work in his office in New York. Liffey is alone apart from the Polish builders who come to work on the house during the day. When Liffey visits the local doctor about the pregnancy, word gets out to Mabs via her sister Carol (Tina Kellegher), the receptionist at the surgery.
I don’t need to ‘spoil’ any more of the plot. Mabs, Molly and Carol are prepared to go to any lengths to bring a boy into the family, including magic. Liffey is alone, working on her architectural drawings. The plot elements strongly resemble Don’t Look Now in which Donald Sutherland is a church restorer separated from his wife by a job that takes him abroad and Julie Christie is the mother who meets a woman with ‘second sight’ when she is distraught after the death of her son. Sutherland even turns up in Puffball (a function of Canadian funding?) as Liffey’s one-time boss, offering her a partnership if she will come back to work.
The criticisms of the film seem to be that the performances of this strong cast are too much in melodrama mode, that the sex scenes are ‘too strong’ (18 Certificate) and that the cinematography is too obvious/too crude/too cheap. The DP is Nigel Willoughby (whose first major credit was on Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters) but the style is immediately recognisable as Roeg’s from the opening landscape shots. There is that palpable sense of the environment being a character in the story (as in Walkabout). None of these seem like reasons to denigrate the film. Perhaps the key for some critics is Roeg’s decision to use traditional camera ‘tricks’ to illustrate the magical elements in the film and to compound this with shots that link the foetus in Liffey’s uterus with the spores in the puffball and to ‘replay’ the sexual act with images of a penis entering a vagina as seen ‘internally’. Some have complained that the effects are ‘cheap’, others that the sex is gratuitous. The sex is not gratuitous and needs to be represented in the way it has been to work with the narrative. Personally I like traditional camera tricks more than CGI. Overall, the negative reactions seem to me to be part of a British distaste for fantasy cinema and the excess of melodrama – strengths of British Cinema I would argue.
The Wikipedia page for the film suggests an estimated budget for the film of £7 million. I would be surprised if it was half that and a quarter might be more realistic. There is a small cast and a limited number of locations. Roeg has clearly been marginalised and at 87 he is perhaps unlikely to get too many more chances to make films. I’m certainly now willing to go back and look at some of his films again as I’m sure that he deserves more attention. I’m going to look at the documentary by David Thompson again as well.
Another loss for the British Film Industry. Jack Gold did not have a high profile but he directed some fine cinema and television films. My first encounter was The Bofors Gun (1968), set in the era of National Service and with compelling performances from Nicol Williamson and David Warner. His following film The Reckoning (1970) also starred Williamson returning to Liverpool on the death of his father. Both were sharply made with complex characters and powerful plots. The Sailor’s Return (1978) dealt with racial prejudice before the issue acquired a sharper focus on film. Some of his later films lacked the subtlety of his earlier work. The Medusa Touch (also 1978) had a ludicrous plot: but the climatic disaster remains a must for subversives and republicans. There were also many fine films for television. The Lump (1967) was a Wednesday Play written by Jim Allen, dealing with casualised labour with a strong social consciousness. And Mad Jack (1970) was an effective treatment of the ordeal of Siegfried Sassoon during World War I. Then there was the better known The Naked Civil Servant (1975), splendidly led by John Hurt. Later there was The Praying Mantis (1983, in two parts) with an unsettling Cherie Lunghi in the lead. And later again one of the best of and the final Inspector Morse films, The Remorseful Day (2000). Jack Gold was a fairly prolific filmmaker, look at his list of productions on IMDB. Looking back, apart from his skills in film production what is clear is that he was also a fine director of actors: and he worked with some of the finest in British film and television.
This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.