Scenes That I Love: The Opening Tracking Shot from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil


I’m pretty sure that I’ve shared this scene before but, if I did, it was several years ago.  Through the Shattered Lens has been around for nearly ten years now, after all.  (TEN YEARS!)

Since today is Orson Welles’s birthday, I wanted to share at least one scene that I love from his films.  Even though I didn’t want to go with the obvious choice of picking something from Citizen Kane, there was still a wealth of scenes to choose from.  But, in the end, I really didn’t have any choice but to go with the tracking shot that opens 1958’s Touch of Evil.

This scene really does show why Welles was such an important director.  It’s not just that the scene is a masterpiece of suspense, starting out with a close-up of a ticking time bomb and then leaving us to wonder just when exactly it’s going to explode.  It’s also that the scene perfectly sets up the odd and sordid atmosphere of Touch of Evil.  It’s a scene that begins in America, takes the viewer into Mexico, and then literally ends with a bang.  And it does it all in just one shot!

Because of a throw-away joke in Ed Wood, there’s a widely-held but incorrect assumption that Welles was forced to cast Charlton Heston in the lead role in Touch of Evil or that Welles and Heston didn’t get along.  Actually, Heston was the one who fought for Welles to be given a chance to direct Touch of Evil and, when the studios attempted to fire Welles from the project, Heston stopped them by announcing that he would quite if Welles wasn’t allowed to complete the picture.  It may be tempting to make jokes about Heston playing a Mexican cop but, if not for him, this film probably wouldn’t exist right now.  And that would be a tragedy.

With all that said and done, here’s a scene that I love:

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Pictures: The 1950s


The Governor’s Ball, 1958

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1950s.

The Third Man (1950, dir by Carol Reed)

Now, it should be noted that The Third Man was not ignored by the Academy.  It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and it was nominated for both editing and Carol Reed’s direction.  But, even with that in mind, it’s somewhat amazing to consider all of the nominations that it didn’t get.  The screenplay went unnominated.  So did the famous zither score.  No nominations for Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, or even Orson Welles!  And finally, no Best Picture nomination.  1950 was a good year for the movies so competition was tight but still, it’s hard to believe that the Academy found room to nominate King Solomon’s Mines but not The Third Man.

Rear Window (1954, dir by Alfred Hitchcock)

Alfred Hitchcock directed some of his best films in the 50s, though few of them really got the recognition that they deserved upon their initial release.  Vertigo is often described as being Hitchcock’s masterpiece but, to be honest, I actually prefer Rear Window.  This film finds the master of suspense at his most playful and, at the same time, at his most subversive.  Casting Jimmy Stewart as a voyeur was a brilliant decision.  This film features one of my favorite Grace Kelly performances.  Meanwhile, Raymond Burr is the perfect schlubby murderer.  Like The Third Man, Rear Window was not ignored by the academy.  Hitchcock was nominated and the film also picked up nods for its screenplay, cinematography, and sound design.  However, it was not nominated for best picture.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955, dir by Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s classic film changed the way that teenagers were portrayed on film and it still remains influential today.  James Dean is still pretty much the standard to which most young, male actors are held.  Dean was not nominated for his performance here.  (He was, however, nominated for East of Eden that same year.)  Instead, nominations went to Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and the film’s screenplay.  Amazingly, in the same year that the forgettable Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was nominated for best picture, this popular and influential film was not.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955, dir by Robert Aldrich)

It’s unfortunate but not surprising that Kiss Me Deadly was totally ignored by the Academy.  In the mid-to-late 50s, the Academy tended to embrace big productions.  There was no way they were going to nominate a satirical film noir that featured a psychotic hero and ended with the end of the world.  That’s a shame, of course, because Kiss Me Deadly has proven itself to be more memorable and influential than many of the films that were nominated in its place.

Touch of Evil (1958, dir by Orson Welles)

Speaking of underappreciated film noirs, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is one of the craftiest and most brilliant films ever made.  So, of course, no one appreciated it when it was originally released.  This cheerfully sordid film features Welles at his best.  Starting with a memorable (and oft-imitated) tracking shot, the film proceeds to take the audience into the darkest and most eccentric corners of a small border town.  Everyone in the cast, from the stars to the bit players, is memorably odd.  Even the much mocked casting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican pays off wonderfully in the end.

The 400 Blows (1959, dir by Francois Truffaut)

Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical directorial debut was released in the United States in 1959 and it was Oscar-eligible.  Unfortunately, it only picked up a screenplay nomination.  Of course, in the late 50s, the last thing that the Academy was going to embrace was a French art film from a leftist director.  However, The 400 Blows didn’t need a best picture nomination to inspire a generation of new filmmakers.

Up next, in an hour or so, we continue on to the 60s!

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.

NO!  NOT JIMMY STEWART!

In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

A Movie A Day #275: The Awakening (1980, directed by Mike Newell)


Charlton Heston is Matthew Cormbeck, a driven archaeologist.  (Could an archaeologist played by Charlton Heston by anything other than driven?)  In 1961, he discovers the long-lost tomb of an Egyptian queen named Kara.  Ignoring both the birth of his daughter and the warning inscribed over the doorway, Matthew enters the tomb and discovers the mummified Kara.  At the same time, his stillborn daughter, Margaret, comes back to life.

18 years later, Cormbeck is a teacher at a British university.  He has since divorced Margaret’s mother and has married his longtime assistant, Jane (Susannah York).  Matthew is still obsessed with whether or not the Egyptians are taking proper care of the mummy and wants to bring it to England.  At the same time, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist) defies her mother and comes to England to meet her father.

Like Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, The Awakening was based on Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.  Unfortunately, The Awakening is never as good as Blood from Mummy’s Tomb and gets bogged down in the lengthy Egyptian prologue.  (Blood from The Mummy’s Tomb skipped over the first part of Stoker’s novel and started with Margaret already 18 and possessed.)  The Awakening tries to take a more cerebral approach than the Hammer adaptation but both Heston and Zimbalist are fatally miscast.  Especially in the Egyptian scenes, Heston grits his teeth and lets his ascot do most of the work.

When it comes to Heston in Egypt, stick with The Ten Commandments.  When it comes to mummies in England, stick with Hammer.

I Am Legend: THE OMEGA MAN (Warner Brothers 1971)


cracked rear viewer

When I was a lad of 13, back in the Stone Age, I saw THE OMEGA MAN on the big screen during it’s first run. I remember thinking it was real cool, with Charlton Heston mowing down a bunch of mutant bad guys with his sub-machine gun, some funny one-liners, and a few semi-naked scenes with Rosalind Cash. What more could an adolescent kid ask for in a movie? Now that I’m (ahem!) slightly older, I recently re-watched the film, wondering just how well, if at all, it would hold up.

I’m happy to report THE OMEGA MAN, despite some flaws in logic, stands the test of time as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi action/adventure, with a touch of Gothic horror thrown in. The film is the second of three based on Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND, the first written by Matheson himself (under the pseudonym Logan Swanson) as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, a 1964…

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A Movie A Day #33: Two-Minute Warning (1976, directed by Larry Peerce)


mpw-8771

For the longest time, I thought that Two-Minute Warning was a movie about a gang of art thieves who attempt to pull off a heist by hiring a sniper to shoot at empty seats at the Super Bowl.  As planned by a master criminal known as The Professor (Rossano Brazzi), the sniper will cause a riot and the police will be too busy trying to restore order to notice the robbery being committed at an art gallery that happens to be right next to the stadium.

I believed that because that was the version of Two-Minute Warning that would sometimes show up on television.  Whenever I saw the movie, I always through it was a strange plan, one that had too many obvious flaws for any halfway competent criminal mastermind to ignore them.  What if the sniper was captured before he got a chance to start shooting?  What if a riot didn’t break out?  The sniper spent the movie aiming at empty seats but, considering how many people were in the stadium, it was likely that he would accidentally shoot someone.  Were the paintings really worth the risk of a murder charge?

Even stranger was that Two-Minute Warning was not only a heist film but it was also a 1970s disaster film.  Spread out throughout the stadium were familiar character actors like Jack Klugman, John Cassevetes, David Janssen, Martin Balsam, Gena Rowlands, Walter Pidgeon, and Beau Bridges.  It seemed strange that, once the shots were fired and Brazzi’s men broke into the gallery, all of those familiar faces vanished.  When it comes to disaster movies, it is an ironclad rule that at least one B-list celebrity has to die.  It seemed strange that Two-Minute Warning, with all those characters, would feature a sniper shooting at only empty seats.  For that matter, why would there be empty seats at the Super Bowl?

That wasn’t the strangest thing about Two-Minute Warning, though.  The strangest thing was that Charlton Heston was in the film, playing a police captain.  In most of his scenes, he had dark hair.  But, in the scenes in which he talked about the art gallery, Heston’s hair was suddenly light brown.

Recently, I watched Two-Minute Warning on DVD and I was shocked to discover that the movie on the DVD had very little in common with the movie that I had seen on TV.  For instance, the television version started with the crooks discussing their plan to rob the gallery.  The DVD version opened with the sniper shooting at a couple in the park.  In the DVD version, there was no art heist.   The sniper had no motive and no personality.  He was just a random nut who opened fire on the Super Bowl.  And,  in the DVD version, he did not shoot at empty seats.  Several of the characters who survived in the version that I saw on TV did not survive in the version that I saw on DVD.

What happened?

The theatrical version of Two-Minute Warning was exactly what I saw on the DVD.  A nameless sniper opens fire and kills several people at the Super Bowl.  In 1978, when NBC purchased the television broadcast rights for Two-Minute Warning, they worried that it was too violent and too disturbing.  There was concern that, if the film was broadcast as it originally was, people would actually think there was a risk of some nut with a gun opening fire at a crowded event.  (In 1978, that was apparently considered to be implausible.)  So, 40 minutes of new footage was shot.  Charlton Heston even returned to film three new scenes, which explains his changing hair color.  The new version of Two-Minute Warning not only gave the sniper a motive (albeit one that did not make much sense) but it also took out all of the violent death scenes.

Having seen both versions of Two-Minute Warning, neither one is very good, though the theatrical version is at least more suspenseful than the television version.  (It turns out that it was better to give the sniper no motive than to saddle him with a completely implausible one.)  But, even in the theatrical version, the potential victims are too one-dimensional to really care about.  Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Two-Minute Warning is that, at one time, an art heist was considered more plausible than a mass shooting.

tmw

A Movie A Day #32: Number One (1969, directed by Tom Gries)


number-oneQuarterback Cat Catlan (Charlton Heston) used to be one of the greats.  For fifteen years, he has been a professional football player.  He probably should have retired after he led the New Orleans Saints to their first championship but, instead, the stubborn Cat kept playing.  Now, he is 40 years old and struggling to keep up with the younger players.  His coach (John Randolph) says that Cat has another two or three years left in him but the team doctor (G.D. Spradlin who, ten years later, played a coach in North Dallas Forty) says that one more strong hit could not only end Cat’s career but possibly his life as well.  Two of former Cat’s former teammates (Bruce Dern and Bobby Troup) offer to help Cat find a job off the field but Cat tells them the same thing that he tells his long-suffering wife (Jessica Walter).  He just has to win one more championship.

Number One is unique for being one of the first movies to ever take a look at the dark side of professional football.  At 40, Cat is facing an uncertain future.  His years of being a star have left him unprepared to deal with life in the real world.  He has no real friends and a wife who no longer needs him.  This would seem like a perfect role for Heston, who always excelled at playing misanthropes.  Heston is convincing when he’s arguing with his wife or refusing to sign an autograph but, surprisingly, he is thoroughly unconvincing whenever he’s on the field.  For all of his grunting and all the lines delivered through gritted teeth, Heston is simply not believable as a professional athlete, even one who is past his prime.  (When he played the 40 year-old Cat, Heston was 46 and looked like he was 56.)  Whenever Cat throws a football, he’s played by Heston in close-ups and very obviously replaced by real-life Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer for the long shots.  A football film is only as good and convincing as the football action and, on that front, Number One leaves much to be desired.

The 1969 press photo displays Heston's throwing technique.

This 1969 press photo displays Heston’s throwing technique.

Two final notes: For the scene in which Cat is tackled by three Dallas Cowboys (all played by actual players), Heston requested that the players actually tackle him.  Heston ended up with three broken ribs.

Finally, Number One was made the cooperation of the New Orleans Saints and features several players in the cast.  When Number One was filmed, the Saints were still a relatively new expansion team.  Cat is described as having already led the Saints to a championship but it would actually be another 40 years before the Saints would finally make their first trip to the Super Bowl.