Greetings, readers! Sorry to have been MIA. I was on vacation. But I’m back and ready to resume writing about great movie openings. This week I’m writing about the best film made by Orson Welles. No, it’s not Citizen Kane. That title for me belongs to the noir classic Touch of Evil. Anyone that has seen the film knows why it’s opening is on the most highly regarded sequences ever put in a movie.
The opening of Touch of Evil contains one of the earliest tracking shots. And at 3 1/2 minutes, it’s also one of the longest. In addition to being technically impressive, the opening of Touch of Evil does an amazing job of establishing mood and establishing the plot. As the film opens, the camera pans through a seedy border town, We see a bomb being put into a car trunk and its driver being unaware as he drives off. And then we see more and more of the city with its bars and dark alleys. This is the perfect setting for a noir film.
What’s fascinating too is that there is almost no dialogue in the whole opening. It isn’t until Charleton Heston’s narcotics officer and his wife (played by Janet Leigh) are introduced that we have any meaningful dialogue. Well, there is the driver of the car with the bomb in it whose wife tells him about a ticking noise. But the way the tracking shot is done absolutely sucks you in. What is this place? Why the car bomb? What is the narcotics officer up to?
One of the keys to a noir film is an ability to grab you in the opening but still maintain suspense throughout. Knowing there’s a bomb in that car from the word go already has the viewer on the edge of their seat. We wonder when it’s going to explode. When it does, shortly after we’re introduced to two of our principal characters, it’s game on. As a viewer you’re scrambling to piece the puzzle together immediately, just like the lead characters.
Touch of Evil‘s opening sequence takes its sweet old time, and the film is all the better for it. We know just from the lighting and the bits of the town that we see that it’s a sketchy place with lots of secrets. Adding to the atmosphere is a score by the legendary composer Henry Mancini. Rarely have jazz bongo drums been more effective. All of this is a masterclass in how to establish mood and character without spelling things out with blunt dialogue and quickly cut action sequences. Citizen Kane may be Welles’ masterpiece to many. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s Touch of Evil. There was just something about noir that fit Welles like a glove. While all of Touch of Evil is a masterpiece, it’s opening is one of the most incredible things ever put on film.