(On TV, June 2018) Much has been written and said about Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and nearly all of it supports the assertion that it is a late film-noir classic. I certainly won’t dispute the critical consensus: From its landmark first extended shot, Touch of Evil is the work of a master filmmaker, deftly guiding us through a familiar plot with enough energy and precision to make it look at fresh and new. By the late fifties, film noir was growing aware of its own stylized approach, and Welles had ballooned up to his late-day persona. Both are used effectively, with Welles delivering plenty of visual style as a director, while turning in a remarkably disquieting performance as a deeply corrupt police officer. The film effectively uses actors such as Marlene Dietrich, but somehow convinced itself that Charlton Heston would make a convincing Mexican under layers of makeup. This misstep stands out but does not really damage the film, which is good enough to stand on its own. The sense of palpable desperation certainly associates Touch of Evil with prototypical film noir—it remains a must see for fans of the genre.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Orson Welles does film noir in The Lady from Shanghai, a fairly standard thriller that becomes a great movie through great direction. Welles stars as an everyday man who meets your usual femme fatale, not quite grasping that he’s being framed for murder. Things go from New York City to San Francisco in a flash, and before long our protagonist is unjustly accused, dragged in court and forced to escape to prove his innocence (does that stuff ever works out in real life?) The plot is familiar, but it’s Welles’ eye for the camera and caustic sense of humour that sets the film apart. There’s a climax of court during the trial sequence, during which the camera can’t seem to stop focusing on tiny inconsequential details rather than the (very familiar) argument being presented to the course, exactly as if the chatter was a foregone conclusion and not worth our attention anyway. The famous ending shootout takes places in a half-of-mirror, something that has been appropriated by at least two other movies already. It all amounts to a very stylish, very competent film noir in the purest tradition of the genre. Legend has it that Welles accepted to do the film because he needed money, and the final result was butchered by studio executives. Still, the film shows a clever craftsman at work: San Francisco looks great, Welles has one of his final “thin Welles” roles, and Rita Hayworth makes for a near-perfect femme fatale. The result, however, is definitely weird and has occasional shifts in tone that can catch viewers unaware—whether deliberately through Welles’ intentions or accidentally through studio interference, The Lady from Shanghai sometimes works best as vignettes rather than a sustained narrative. But it’s still worth seeing.