How Orson Welles redefined 'Film Noir'

Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane' (1938)
Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane' (1938)

In typical Welles fashion, the emperor of cinema redefines a genre with his stunning 'Touch of Evil' (1958)

A touch of..... Welles.

Beethoven, Shakespeare, Twain, Keaton, Gates, Jobs… Welles… The list is as endless as it is diverse, yet what exactly constitutes genius? I submit, the same thing that constitutes and drives innovation.

Welles was a masterful enigma of cinema; an innovator, that’s for certain. Shortly before his death, Wells confided to Peter Bogdanovich Welles’ now notorious, yet apropos credo: boy, how everyone’ll love me when I’m dead.”

Orson Welles spent a career doing it all “his way” and, as such, both infuriated and intimidated the studios. Welles sought sensationalism, and it showed in his craft, his demand for excellence, and his pursuit of not just utilizing modern film making methodology, but defining it. With Kane, Welles unleashed the full bore of his artistic potential and -in doing so- knew outright what he had created. His faux News on the March “augmented-reality” segment delivered his intended reading dead-on: to create uniform believability out of nothing more than imagination and fairytale illusion.

Welles’ drive for innovation and exactness was almost Goerbbels-like in his “the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it” approach to cinematic sensationalism. News On The March replicated –in oldtimey fashion, mind you- a historical/documentary “past”, that never even existed! It was “reality entertainment” decades before the concept would ever be actualized.

Another example of Welles’ desire to create uniform believability out of nothing, is recalled in his now infamous “War of the Worlds” pre-Halloween 1938 broadcast –another of his faux “augmented reality” offerings, which panicked nearly all of New Jersey; a story which immediately drew national media attention.

Even though Orson Welles wasn’t actually the first filmmaker to use the deep focus technique/filmic style, he certainly does poach the lion’s share of acclaim. Welles is routinely credited for opening up cinematic depth of field with his Citizen Kane (1941) exploitation of, and subsequent career love affair with, deep focus. I thought about this while again watching Touch of Evil (1958), a text with much more deeply entrenched deep focus usage, than his heralded Citizen Kane opus.

It was through Touch of Evil, not Citizen Kane, which Welles redefined a genre –Film Noir- and in doing so solidified his genius into the annals of cinematic history.

A stout Orson Welles by 1958.  Gone are his svelte and handsome Citizen Kane days.  Welles would use his enormous size to an advantage by writing his weight gain into the script.  The cause of his massive size: Unrequited love for the femme fatale.
A stout Orson Welles by 1958. Gone are his svelte and handsome Citizen Kane days. Welles would use his enormous size to an advantage by writing his weight gain into the script. The cause of his massive size: Unrequited love for the femme fatale.

Bloated, but no buffoon

Warping conventionalism under the guise of “mainstream appeal” was Welles’ signature. Throughout his career Wells would manipulate even the most current and popular of filmic techniques and styles into his own Wellesian amalgamations.

Deep focus for example, later became such a lush part of his career that by “Touch of Evil” Welles' style was awash with it, in almost Hitchcockian predictability.

Widely known was the contempt Welles had for Hitchcock, and certainly once he began feeling settled in his craft, Welles trail-blazed ahead towards innovation, lest be aligned with his Hitchcockian contemporary.

In Touch of Evil, mega-studio Paramount wanted a simple, straight-forward noir film, which Wells would deliver, but wanted to do in his own way. Keeping true to his desire to innovate, Welles employed HIS interpretation of film noir.

The studios, of course balked, which is how the whole ‘multiple versions’ of Touch of Evil came about.

Marlene Dietrich... The classic femme fatal, in a uncommon setting.
Marlene Dietrich... The classic femme fatal, in a uncommon setting.

Enter the Femme Fatale: Dietrich

Key film noir components, (such as defining a ‘traditional’ femme fetale, or starting a film at the end, etc) are noted, and debated, as “not present” in Touch of Evil. Are these supposedly missing traits really missing? Or, has Welles pulled off another of his elaborate deconstructions of style, by doing it, again, as HE defined?

By 1958 even the great Orson Welles –who himself employed reverse storytelling in Citizen Kane- had grown tired of that too. Yes, the money, the audience appeal and the studios were clamoring for film noir, and Welles would deliver… But on his terms.

So then, what was it about Welles’ interpretation of film noir that inspired him to repackage film noir to his liking in Touch of Evil, yet so infuriated Paramount? Several notable ‘Wellesian’ interpretations took the film noir style and flipped it upside-down to suit Welles own needs, including…

  • Welles did away with the narrative voice over
  • Welles likewise did away with starting a film at the end and moving progressively backwards through the reveal…
  • And then… the femme fatal.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh in a little south of the boarder trouble.
Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh in a little south of the boarder trouble.

Redefining a new genre... To Welles' liking.

Killing the Voice-Over

I believe Welles did away with voice over in this noir classic because he trusted his audiences… Clearly more than he trusted the studios. In telling Touch of Evil in his own film noir interpretation, Welles knew that a spoken drone, even an informative one, would steal from the lush visual imagery he was so obviously seeking to achieve in the film. So adamant was Welles about anything pulling the viewer’s focus, that one of the defining “battles” that Welles and Paramount fought was over on-screen text over the opening car scene at the beginning of the movie. In Welles’ version, the text scrolls separately, adding 4 extra minutes, which the studio was very vocal about stopping.

In this, Welles felt the same way about the voice over, a standard of film noir which Paramount more than likely expected as a hot filmic trait of the day, yet which Welles did not employ. Why? Because Welles trusted his audience to understand his intended reading, more than he trusted Paramount.

Not ‘beginning at the end’

Another claim that Touch of Evil breaks the standard film noir style has been that the text does not “begin at the end”, a classic –if not defining- trait of standard film noir. Well, as goes the expression, the end of one story is the beginning of another. Touch of Evil opens on the end result of whatever unseen story led to the doomed driver and passenger’s demise in the car bombing. From there, the filmic text picks up the search for motive, for responsible parties, and a tapestry unfolds. Through the exploration into motive and culprits for the opening bombing, many things are revealed; most notably, Welles’ ingenious use and insertion of the story within the story: the past dynamic between Welles character and Dietrich’s, clearly a femme fatale dynamic, and thus, a missing key component of film noir definition.

The (not) missing Femme Fatale…

Film Noir’s coveted pièce de résistance is -and has always been- the femme fatale. Just because the femme fatale dynamic is not the story Welles sought to tell in Touch of Evil that does not mean it was not employed; it was.

To spin film noir in his own style, Welles “reconstituted” the dynamic –and the placing- of the femme fatale in Touch of Evil. The femme fatale didn’t just control men; she domineered them. In doing so, the femme fatale became a spring overflowing of sexual desire, of their obsessive fixation, of and ultimately their un-doing. To Welles, such a character was far too lush to cast off, and in Touch of Evil, Welles had absolutely no desire to any such thing.

The film does not maximize the traditional noir-defining femme fatale because -in this particular intended reading- the femme fatale was not the story Welles sought to tell. Instead, the femme fatale here is Marlene Dietrich, as a tarot-reading seductress who once -in their untold shared past history- had clearly bewitched Welles’ flawed, corrupt character.

Welles with his 'Mercury Theater on the Air', responsible for panicking New Jersey, with his 1938 'War of the Worlds' broadcast.
Welles with his 'Mercury Theater on the Air', responsible for panicking New Jersey, with his 1938 'War of the Worlds' broadcast.

Orson Welles' biggest contribution to pop culture is best encapsulated in...

  • Welles' panic-inducing 1938 New Jersey radio play, 'War of the Worlds'
  • Welles " Mercury Theatre" troupe
  • "Touch of Evil" (1958)
  • "Citizen Kane" (1941)
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Touch of Evil was a set-up of a film, that could have easily spawned a long line of "addendum astories", or "sequesls" as we know the term today.

The film ends with Dietrich watching her former object of femme fatale fixation –Welles- floating lifelessly down the river, and returning to the very disappointing life she’d lamented to Welles about earlier in the film.

A set up for a ‘traditional’ femme fatale ‘sequel’ of sorts?

It is, of course, entirely possible... But no, probably not.

But the film does conclude in the same way it opened: a tragic event that is the culmination of events told through the text.

Knowing the “history” of all the characters, I could see a film opening on Welles dead body in the water, in much the same way that Touch of Evil opened with its tragic car bombing.

As one story ends... Another begins.

So it was with Orson Welles: Iconic genius of entertainment.

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Comments 4 comments

R. Martin Basso profile image

R. Martin Basso 3 years ago from California Author

I never realized just how majestic a film creator Wells was, until graduate film school at AAU in SF. Wells came with fire power, that is for certain. The things he did for and to the craft of cinema, once you start to dissect everything, is just staggering. Thanks for the kind words, Cam. You just gained another fan/follower in me, BTW.

cam8510 profile image

cam8510 3 years ago from Columbus, Georgia until the end of November 2016.

I enjoyed this very much. It's a funny thing, I read The Outline of History by H.G. Wells. When I tell people that it is one of my all time favorites, they just can't figure out why or when Orson Welles would have written a history of the world.

Clearly the man was a genius, and I thank you for illustrating that in such brilliant detail.

R. Martin Basso profile image

R. Martin Basso 3 years ago from California Author

Hi J

I never really gave Orson Welles the credit he deserves. It was with very much delight that, through a college course assignment, I was able to really get into this piece and focus On all that he contributed. As far as the voiceover goes, I just finished my first feature about a month ago. I left out voice over namely because it didn't have a place but I'm sure if I had wanted to I could have created one since the opportunity is actually there.

I also finished another one - a short 20 pages and there's no voice over in that either. What I'm curious about is how to write an effective screenplay to industry standards that I would be able to festival if the screenplay has no, or very little,dialogue. I have one that I am looking at doing now.

jmartin1344 profile image

jmartin1344 3 years ago from Royal Oak, Michigan

A wonderful analysis Martin - really enjoyed reading this! I love both Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil - probably ToE more due to my love of Noir.

I really found your point about removing the voice over interesting, and the idea of trusting your audience (and I suppose inwardly trusting your material to transfer the message) - I'm working on a screenplay myself now and am very torn as to whether or not I need or want to include some voice over narrative. Maybe this will sway me!

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