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A Classic From the End of the Dark Ages

Chapman will show Orson Welles' acclaimed film noir thriller 'Touch of Evil' as it was 40 years ago.

November 19, 1998|Alternate Screen DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you haven't caught the recent theatrical re-release of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," restored and edited to reflect Welles' original vision, Chapman University is offering the next best thing: a chance to see the acclaimed noir thriller as it was released in theaters 40 years ago.

Welles' artfully shot tale of murder and vengeance in a U.S.-Mexican border town screens tonight as part of the university's Film Noir Series presented by Bob Bassett, dean of the School of Film and Television, who is showing the movies as part of his class on the film genre that presents the world as a dark and dangerous place.

Like many film scholars, Bassett views the 1958 movie co-starring Welles, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as marking the end of the classic period of film noir, which began in 1941 with John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon."

But unlike Humphrey Bogart's detective Sam Spade, who is morally compromised yet maintains his integrity, Bassett said, Welles' corrupt American cop in "Touch of Evil" is a character who is so decadent that he plants evidence on people and doesn't care whether they are guilty or innocent.

"It's a very different character," Bassett said. "I think people remember that character because he's very finely textured. He's very overweight, which is like a metaphor for the decay and decadence of the world he inhabits. The rest of the characters in the picture are pretty much caricatures; many of them are almost grotesque, particularly Grandi [Akim Tamiroff], this small-time hood who runs narcotics in that border town."

But more than the characters and the film's story, Bassett said, what audiences most remember about "Touch of Evil" are the "incredible visuals" created by cinematographer Russell Metty.

"I think that's part of why people really feel this is the conclusion of noir," he said. "Many of the German Expressionist techniques that were picked up and used in noir to express the sort of nightmare world that these characters find themselves in are used so perfectly in this picture. The lighting is very harsh, very high contrast. There are a lot of wide-angle lenses used; often the camera is placed at a low angle, which exaggerates everything. And some of the angles are canted or oblique, which makes the world of the film off-kilter. Also, the art direction makes the whole world that these characters inhabit quite seedy and quite decadent."

Bassett said the film's dramatic opening sequence, shot in one long, continuous take, is the most memorable example of the film's extraordinary visual style: It begins with an extreme close-up of a bomb, then the camera follows the assassin as he puts the bomb into a car. The camera cranks up to a high-angle shot, then tracks the car down the street.

"Welles' versatility with the long take is one of the things he was noted for, which he had established in the 1941 'Citizen Kane,' " Bassett said. "He actually will create one long shot, but it's structured as though it were an edited sequence."

Although "Touch of Evil" has been described by some critics as alternating between greatness and mediocrity--and it's hard for many to accept Heston as a Mexican--the film remains one of Bassett's favorite examples of film noir.

"This is the movie I think people consider a guilty pleasure almost," he said. "The subject matter and some of the elements of the film make it not a perfect film, but I think it's extremely enjoyable to watch, and that's why people love it so much."

Bassett will continue his "Touch of Evil" discussion after the screening, which is free of charge. Those wanting to attend Bassett's pre-screening discussion with his students are welcome to arrive at 7.

* "Touch of Evil" screens at 8 p.m. today in Argyros Forum Room 208, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Running time: 96 minutes. Not rated.

"Vivacious history, gorgeous visuals and savvy social critiques" highlight French director Edouard Molinaro's 1997 film "Beaumarchais," to be presented Friday by the UC Irvine Film Society. Set in the pre-French Revolution era, the film is about gadfly Beaumarchais, a watchmaker's son turned playwright who finagles his way into the royal court.

* "Beaumarchais" screens at 7 and 9 p.m. in Crystal Cove Auditorium on campus. General admission: $4.50. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 100 minutes. Not rated.

Structuralist Shorts

An evening of short films from the early '70s--"Short on Film, Long on Structure: Structuralist Film Shorts"--is presented tonight at the Film and Video Center at UC Irvine. On tap: Robert Nelson's "Bleu Shut" (1970), Hollis Frampston's "Nostalgia" (1971) and "Poet Justice" (1972), George Landow's "Remedial Reading Comprehension" (1971) and Gunvor Nelson's "Take Off" (1972).

* The films screen at 7 tonight in the Film and Video Center, Humanities Instructional Building, Room 100, West Peltason Drive and Bridge Road. Running time: 2 hours. General admission: $6.

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