Film is an audiovisual medium, and few genres or styles take advantage of film’s audiovisual potential to quite the same extent as Film Noir. With its crackling dialogue and jaded narrators, brooding and haunting scores, non-linear and often elliptical editing, and striking visuals, the technique of Film Noir can be a potent demonstration of the technology of film. In any discussion of how individuals stretch the limitations of film and fully exploit its potential, we must acknowledge the contributions of Orson Welles. Similarly, in any discussion of Film Noir, we must again acknowledge the significant influence of Orson Welles. Welles will, in all likelihood, be best remembered for Citizen Kane (1941), and this legacy is not without merit. The film will be analyzed for its masterful infusion of noir technical style, but as Andrew Dickos writes, “Citizen Kane may logically be considered the breeding ground for several screen movements, cycles, and genre developments that, laying claim to it as a source, would scarcely satisfy claims specific to the genesis of the noir.” (89) Consequently, we must not regard Citizen Kane as a true film noir, but rather as an invaluable storehouse of noir technique in the service of a different genre. Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958) fit into the classical definition of Film Noir, though Welles’s famous panache gives them a more distinct flavor than some of the widely regarded, more genre-bound entries into the noir canon, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Though not a noir itself, Citizen Kane displays many hallmarks of the genre, and given that it was made in 1941, it is not simply an embodiment of noir technique, but actually anticipates and influences the style of Film Noir thenceforth: “Citizen Kane possesses many characteristics which were to come into common use in film noir: voice-over narration, multiple flashbacks, a questing investigator, moral ambiguity, and above all probing and imaginative camera-work and stylized sets.” (Crowther 55) Consider this clip from the film. It is the first scene following the groundbreaking “News on the March” opening. Note the chiaroscuro lighting, the hard-boiled dialogue and atmosphere, and the initiation of an investigation into the mystery of Kane’s last word, “rosebud,” that launches the non-linear narrative.
Citizen Kane also reveals German Expressionism, one of the great progenitors of Film Noir, as a significant stylistic influence. Look no further than this establishing shot of Xanadu—Kane’s home, a gothic and grotesque monument to himself—to see the stamp of German Expressionsim.
It is more reminiscent of the imagery in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) than that of any preceding American film. In Crowther’s words, “The design and photography of Citizen Kane are replete with imagery which reflects earlier Expressionist and Gothic effects, and foreshadows many of the elements of later film noirs.” (55) The three images on the left reveal the striking visual style of Citizen Kane. The first image of the investigative reporter at the library demonstrates Welles’s use of stylization through high-contrast lighting and grandiose, overbearing production design. Welles affects a sense of loneliness and intimidation, foreshadowing two key features of Charles Foster Kane’s personality. The next two images show Welles’s mastery of visual parallelism and inspired use of framing and deep focus photography—all influences on noir. The similarity in shot composition is clear, and this is likely intended and deserves further analysis. For better or worse, the purposes of this essay require a departure from Citizen Kane, though untold volumes of prose and analytical scrutiny have come and gone since 1941 attempting to unpack its style and content.
In The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles offers his most involved and engaging portrait of the femme fatale in the form of Elsa, played by Welles’s wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. As described by Hillier and Phillips, “Elsa’s beautiful but unreadably masklike face complements her mystery…Welles styles and photographs her almost as a parody of the Hollywood sex goddess.” (155) Here is an image of Elsa in all her entrancing, dangerously seductive glory—her hair icy blond, her body scantily clad in black, a cigarette in hand, she is lying back in sexually provocative repose.
Elsa’s past is shrouded in mystery, and her present is far from clear either. Her motivations are cloudy, and her loyalties are schizophrenic. Like Welles’s naïve protagonist, we realize far too late that self-preservation is the only consistent personality trait she displays. Her identity and her true feelings remain a mystery, and that mystery dies with her in Welles’s tour de force “Crazy House” mirror sequence, a portion of which may be viewed here.
This sequence provides a self-reflective metaphor for the impenetrable narrative we have just seen and for noir in general: “Those distorted images revealed in the mirrors provide one of the most powerful visual interpretations in all film noir of the confusion between reality and imagination which lies at the genre’s heart.” (Crowther 56) Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn found Welles’s original cut of The Lady from Shanghai incomprehensible and demanded that its running time be sliced in half: “The picture was savagely cut and held back from cinemas for almost a year, though this is not to suggest that much of Welles’s baroque conception of the noir style is not up there on the screen.” (Hillier and Phillips 157) Even butchered, The Lady from Shanghai remains a potent entry in the pantheon of great noirs. Cohn could reduce the film to its bare bones, but he could not diminish Orson Welles’s stylistic exuberance.
Casting the femme fatale aside with no regard for strict genre conventions, Touch of Evil tells the story of an upstanding Mexican narcotics agent, played surprisingly well by the defiantly American Charlton Heston, who interrupts his honeymoon with a very innocent and far too understanding Janet Leigh, to investigate a murder in the fictional border town of Los Robles. “Welles creates the garish world of Los Robles with some of his flashiest camera work: crane and dutch-angle shots fusing expressionism and action, with flickering neon signs of bars, strip joints, motorcycle gangs, and cheap hotels in the sweltering summer night.” (Dickos 94-95) Heston’s investigation turns into a deadly match of wits and determination with the town’s corrupt and physically grotesque chief of police, Hank Quinlan, played by Welles himself with all the fatalism, swagger, and self-mythologizing arrogance he could muster. Touch of Evil’s opening sequence (see a segment of it here) is one of the longest continuous takes in film history. It is a superb example of Film Noir’s penchant for stylistic flourishes that overwhelm and often distract from the narrative. Welles uses this immense technical achievement to immediately create a tone of intrigue, danger, and paranoia.
Touch of Evil is often acknowledged as the film that “marked the end of Hollywood’s fascination with film noir until the form’s rediscovery and reevaluation during the early 1970s.” (Hillier and Phillips 251) Indeed, Paul Schrader called it “film noir’s epitaph.” “It might well have been the perfect epitaph for the myth of Orson Welles,” writes Dickos. Welles’s Quinlan slowly loses his control of the situation—a control based on old allegiances, charisma, and an antiquated sense of justice no matter the cost—and falls at the hands of a new authority represented by Heston’s character. Here is one of the final images of the film; Welles is doomed, but he does not go down without a fight.
by Jesse Lapin