TOUCH OF EVIL Opening Tracking Shot
Here’s another truly brilliant tracking shot that also features a couple like we saw in our GoodFellas post. This time the legendary Orson Welles was behind the camera making his grand comeback with a low budget crime picture that he proceeded to transform into one of the greatest film noirs in history. Welles of course was always a furious showman when it came to dazzling, inventive camera trickery (see Citizen Kane) so this highly ambitious opening sequence was meant to kick things off with a bang…or boom and get the audience’s attention right away. Welles and his production crew spent the entire night to get the take right and by the time they were finished the sun was about to come up.
Touch of Evil begins with a teen planting a bomb in the trunk of a car and running away. A couple get into the car and slowly drive off as we are taken into the hustle and bustle of the US-Mexico border where Detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) make their way through the crowds to their destination. The exotic style music, along with the confusion of people passing by preoccupied with their own business doesn’t lighten the mood but only heightens it since we don’t know exactly how long it will be until the bomb goes off. Since only we know of the impending doom, it builds tension like a stretching rubberband throughout the whole scene. It could even be seen as a representation the main theme of the story about how these characters don’t even know a touch of evil is actually lurking nearby all the time.
This shot would be inspirational to filmmakers for years to come. Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock was such a big fan he opened his 1960 classic PSYCHO with an extensive aerial tracking shot and even lifted aspects of Touch of Evil’s story (Janet Leigh’s damsel in distress, Dennis Weaver’s hotel owner). Brian DePalma, another director with a love of visual stylization, did his own homage in his 1974 cult favorite Phantom of The Paradise in which he alternately used a split screen sequence along with the ticking bomb placed in a prop car trunk. A more recent homage can be seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s opening of Boogie Nights (1997) which features a single take through a bar introducing the film’s main characters.