Orson Welles was a 25 year old wunderkind when he took Hollywood by storm and showed even the oldest of movie pros how movies could be made. Or so the legend goes. In reality, a closer look at “Citizen Kane” reveals some creaky miniatures and that whole Rosebud thing is kind of silly. In addition, much of the cinematographic elements held in such high esteem had already been done by others, although admittedly not to such elevated aesthetic heights. Despite its failings, “Citizen Kane ” routinely tops critics’ lists of the best movies ever made, but there is one other film Welles canon that you may enjoy a bit more and is most definitely a more assured artistic accomplishment than “Citizen Kane.” Orson Welles was anything but a one trick pony and many cinephiles and cineastes share my view that “Citizen Kane” is not even Orson Welles’ best movie.
Some would argue that “Touch of Evil ” is the real masterpiece given moviegoers by Orson Welles and I am a part of that some. The fame of “Touch of Evil” begins with its remarkable opening sequence that is shot without a single cut taking place for more than three minutes. Many of the most important characters are introduced during this justly famous three minute long uninterrupted take and the plot of the entire movie is quite literally derived from the explosive climax of the scene. The camera is in constant movement and Welles, who got his start in radio, remember, makes brilliant use of sound editing. The lack of studio executives to recognize the brilliance of that use of sound by to convey story as much as the use of the visual elements of cinema is yet another highlight in the long string of examples of how movie studio executives failed to recognize the genius of Orson Welles. The hacks who placed the accounting department ahead of all the creative departments at the studio corrupted the enjoyment of “Touch of Evil” for most of its existence through a recut that placed a theme song over the opening sequence.
The rest of the movie is a lesson in filmmaking technique: one could well argue that “Touch of Evil ” makes more effective use of overlapping dialogue, psychologically suggestive camera angles and camera placement than not only ” Citizen Kane” and not only any other movie directed by Orson Welles but, just possibly, any other movie ever made. What can sometimes seem like a flashy piece of showmanship in Welles’ first masterpiece–I’m talking “Citizen Kane” here–is more artistically integrated into the thematic thrust of this crime film. “Touch of Evil” is anything but easygoing for those raised on several generations of crime dramas on TV. You have to pay attention to what is going on because the plot is multifaceted and there is no psychologist who shows in the last reel to explain all that has gone before like the movie with which it so oddly shares such a strange vibe, “Psycho.” Those who have watched British crime shows should have a much easier time.
What is most astonishing about “Touch of Evil” is that it is by the definition created by those guys at movie studios who placed the accounting department ahead of everything else something that had come to be known as a B-movie. We think of the B-movie as being a low budget affair with has-been stars and low production values, but technically the term B-movie really just refers to the movie deemed to be less attractive to potential moviegoers when paired as a double feature . Among the so-called A-movies with which “Touch of Evil” was paired was Hedy Lamarr’s last film, “The Female Animal.”
Among the other A-movies that screened before “Touch of Evil” at theaters offering moviegoers two movies for the price of one could be found not just one, but two movies starring Marlon Brando. “The Young Lions” was the only time that Brando and Montgomery Clift appeared on screen together “Sayonara” won four of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated. By contrast, “Touch of Evil” was not nominated for a single Academy Award, yet few would dare argue that “Sayonara” was in any possible way the superior example of filmmaking.
“Touch of Evil” is hard representative example and far from being the only example, but little room for argument exists that it is quite likely the the best proof available that you should not not judge a B-movie by its status on a double bill.