The Touch of Orson Welles.

A still from 'Touch of Evil'

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The first thing that strikes you with the mention of the 1958 movie 'Touch of Evil' authored by Orson Welles are the magnificent long takes that the film is adorned with. In simple words, long takes are those shots where the camera is not switched off for a long time. Legendary among the long takes in the 'Touch of Evil' is the one that comes in the very beginning of the film - in fact in the very first shot of the film that runs for about three and a quarter minutes. This write up is in appreciation of the cinematic genius of that particular shot. Let us first watch the shot.

This shot, as you have seen, chronicles the immediate moments before a bomb gets blasted. The location is supposed to be the border towns of two countries - America and Mexico. The set used in the film for this particular shot is about three to four blocks of the town on the Mexican side and a few yards in the American side. Most roads in the Mexican town lead to the border check point that has two booths and an immigration building. It is through these check points that people enter and exit the two countries. This oft quoted shot from 'Touch of Evil', starts from one end of this huge outdoor set and ends at the other. Below is the probable ground pan of the shot, giving us a birds view of the location. It is convenient for a director to plan his shots using such a ground plan. We shall use the ground plan to admire how the shot was taken.

Probable ground plan of the shot with camera and character movements.

In this ground plan given above the green dot represents the cozy couple who walk into the car. Their walking path is marked by green arrows. The car itself is marked by brown colour, its path by brown arrows. The path of the camera is marked by red arrows, its key positions marked again in red as A, B, C etc. The path that the other walking couple takes is marked as blue arrows.
  • The shot starts from camera position A (marked in red). The camera sees, in close up, hands of a man switching on the timer of a bomb. The camera is below the eye level. A music is heard, presumably, a spillover from one of the bar joints in the area.
  • As he hears some voices, the bomber turns towards the source. The camera leaves him and moves to its left, as if turning its head, to see a cozy couple  - marked as a green dot in the ground plan - walk down a building corridor, towards the camera in the far background.
  • The bomber crosses the frame in the foreground and hides behind a corner of the building on the left side of the camera, keeping an eye on the couple. The couple then turn to their left, far away, to disappear behind the building presumably into an alley.
  • The bomber hurriedly runs by the wall of the building, parallel to the now unseen couple who are seemingly walking on the alley on the other side of the building. The camera follows the bomber to a car parking lot, to position B (marked in red), where he opens the boot of the car - marked in brown in the ground plan - and plants the bomb. 
  • As the bomber exits frame, the camera move up on a crane to see the couple approach the car and enter it. As the car moves away from the camera, the music form the car's sound system is heard loud. This music emanating from the car keeps fading off and on as the car goes away from the camera or comes to it, later in the shot. But now the camera is on the crane still looking down on things from a very high position. It moves to its left - back towards position A where far in the background the car appears from behind the building wall from the alley in which we has seen the could walk into some seconds back. The car takes a turn to its left, towards the camera. The camera still moving to its left, comes down briefly to see the approaching car at position C (marked in red), a road crossing.
  • A traffic policeman stop the car to let the vehicular movements pass by on the other lane. The camera in a continuous movement goes up again to its vantage top position looking down on things. Simultaneously it starts moving back from position C. When it reaches yet another road crossing, which is marked as position D, the car catches up with the camera only to be halted by another traffic policeman of that crossing block.
  • At this point we see another couple enter from the right of the camera crossing the road for the purpose of which our car had stopped. At this point the camera moves to its left leaving the car and to frame the second couple. It now comes down to the eye level. Soon, it takes a frontal position to the walking couple. The policeman presumably releases the car at the crossing seen n the background. The car now over takes the couple to exit the ever moving camera.  
  • After a few yards, the couple cross the car which by now is struck standstill as some goats have blocked its path. The perennially moving camera continues to follow the couple as they make their way through another road crossing after which the moving camera goes slightly higher on angle - high enough to see the first booth, where pleasantries are exchanged between the guards and the couple in position E.  Meanwhile in the background we see the car maneuver through the animals and the surround people. It also crosses the first booth, but from the other side.
  • The moving camera now picks up some more height as the couple and the car simultaneously come to booth two marked as position F . Here the camera goes below eye level and halts for the exchange of the border formalities. As the business is completed, the couple move into the immigration building that is now seen in the background.
  • The officers on the booth 2 concentrate on the couple in the car. The lady in the car complains about a ticking sound that she is hearing, but is ignored by the guard. After the couple in the car finish their border formalities and the car exits the camera to the camera's left.  
  • The camera now moves to its left and goes forward as we see the other couple come out of the immigration building and kiss at camera position G, which is now Mexican soil. They turn, when they hear a blast.
  • That is when the camera cuts for the first time in the film to show the blasting of the car.

One of the undercurrent themes of 'Touch of Evil' is the mixing of two cultures and the porous border that supports that. Quite a few people crisscross across the border between the two countries, quite often in the film. The first shot, sets the tone for such a scenario, when the camera and therefore the audience literally crosses the border along with the characters.  

Do watch shot again. Feel free to stop the shot at any point or refer to the points mentioned above or compare it with the drawing in the ground plan. 

There are some other long shots in the film, some of them are take place in indoors in cramped spaces. More about those in a later write up. But now all one can say after watching this clip for the umpteenth time - savoring the playful choreography between the camera movements, character movements, vehicle movement, the play with light and shadow etc.  -  is to exclaim in reverence is 'Whah, kya baat hain...!!! (Wow, what pleasure!!!)


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