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Orson Welles

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Autor:  anton  30 October 2010
Tags:  Welles
Words: 1666   |   Pages: 7
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Lauren Martin

November 28, 2005

Introduction to Film


And His Manipulation of Our Minds

I would like to turn our attention to Mr. Orson Welles and specifically his use of lighting and camera angles in two black and white films, Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil. Citizen Kane was released nearly 20 years before Touch of Evil, but the only true indication of this time lapse is Welles’ personal weight gain. Other than that, there is truly little visible difference in the two. Both are laden with brilliant shots, great acting and an intense musical score. So what I would like to do is use these two films as a comparative vehicle for analysis, but as I stated above, the main focus will be on the dramatic use of dark and light as well as the creative use of camera angles.

Orson Welles, as it has been said many times and by people of much greater authority than myself, was a genius and an American tragedy all wrapped into one, who unfortunately has had more celebration posthumously than otherwise. I don’t believe that Welles was necessarily the greatest actor of all times, though he was great. And for that matter I don’t have an opinion as to whether or not he was a brilliant screen writer. However the fact is that Orson Welles knew precisely how to manipulate viewers’ subconscious with the cunning use of camera angles and intense light and dark.

As you asked us to, I will dive straight into analysis of specific scenes, and I will begin with the use of light and dark. Black and white films have an amazing quality that can never be achieved in color. It is no secret that photographs and film have something in common. When they are developed in black and white they rise to a level of drama and evoke emotion and reaction with an intensity that cannot be matched. Color film was quite available during the production of both films, evidenced by the production of previous films such as MGM’s 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz, but had Welles done either of these two films in color, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him today.

If we break down the issue of light and dark, we see that Welles use of light, while brilliant, is actually quite simple. The emotions and reactions that different shades of light produce within us are somewhat universal, and just as everyone knows that you can create fear within your little brother by throwing him into a dark closet, and then relieve his anxiety by turning on the light, a good director can manipulate his viewers in much the same way.

Light is good while dark is bad. Light is safe and dark is dangerous. Light can be happy and joyful while dark can be sad or dreary. Things in the light which are visible are predictable, open, obvious and assuring, while things shadowed in or hidden by the dark are mysterious, unpredictable and nerve-racking. Mixing levels of light with dark, much like mixing two paint colors, depending upon the proportions and the specific use, can produce many different results, such as confusion, anxiety, etc.

Take for instance the scene very near the beginning of Touch of Evil where Mr. Grande’s nephew “Pancho” leads Suzie off to the hotel where Mr. Grande first introduces himself. Welles does an amazing job of setting up this scene before we even get there. We have a somewhat innocent looking white girl with Hollywood-blonde hair prancing around all alone on the dark streets which border the USA and Mexico. A young foreign man approaches her and insists that she follow him. Suzie has no idea what is going on, who is who or the like but she so ironically says “what have I got to lose?” I thought to myself when I saw this “HOLY HOLLYWOOD LEADING LADY!” Just like every other Hollywood gal in the horror movies that run up the stairs when they should be running out the front door, I knew that she was digging her own grave from the start.

Finally she finds herself in this room with Grande and his nephew, (multiple strange foreign men now in a dark hotel room in a foreign country at night-time) so the viewers are already on edge wishing that she would have walked away or waited for her husband, but the last nail in the coffin is the flickering light in the background. The flickering light dark light dark light dark light dark was an amazing strategy presumably thought of by Welles, to manufacture his audience’s anxiety. It’s truly wonderful because the effect is much different than the signature Hitchcock suspense scene where the viewer knows that someone is getting ready to meet the knife, and it takes everything you have to keep from diving through the television screen to warn or save them. This anxiety is much different.

It’s a very sophisticated use of light, in that you are utterly stressed out thinking, “when can we leave this uncomfortable scene” much like the character would be saying “when can I no longer be in this room?” The danger is not immediately present, but it is certainly a sign of danger to come, or sort of an unwelcome glimpse into this particular character’s future.

Furthermore while on this specific scene, I should address the use of camera angles and then transition over to similar uses in Citizen Kane. While in this “room of anxiety” with Grande and Pancho we notice that the classic upward angle shot is used on the men while a straight shot is used on Suzie. This angle is one of Welles’ classic aces in the hole. The camera goes back and forth from Suzie to the men several times and each time the camera takes a medium shot from approximately the waist up, at an upward angle at the two Hispanic men. Once again there is a manipulation of the subconscious as we the viewers sense these men intensely dominate the scene and the situation with Suzie. This shot can be used to produce a “larger than life” effect that we see throughout Citizen Kane, in the famous conversation between Kane and Jedediah about love and the people, but now 20 years later we see this shot used slightly differently. The angle is specifically used to threaten the damsel in distress and furthermore to threaten the audience that may grow to care for her as her character develops. There is powerfully suggestive foreshadowing taking place here; for now we expect to be visited by these antagonists at a later point in the film, and we would never suppose that the outcome could be positive. All of this meaning in one quick shot.

One of my favorite shots which used extreme lighting for dramatic effect in Citizen Kane was toward the beginning when the reporters met in the dark smoke- filled room to discuss their big upcoming investigation of the meaning of “Rosebud” and the story that would follow. The use was very extreme with some of the faces of the reporters literally covered in dark shadowing, with only enough light to show us that the room was filled with smoke. This is a very different use of the dark than we saw in the previously discussed scene in the Mexican hotel room. There was no fear in this dark room. There was more of a suggestion of subterfuge or, excuse the pun, but shadiness.

Here we have a group of reporters that are essentially up to no good, looking to exploit the death of the fallen newspaper ringleader. I hate to say that the dark suggested evil, but on sort of an innocent level of evil, that is precisely the intended effect. While seemingly innocent, as they try to muster up a hot story for the press, there is a level of malice here as clearly the reporters are willing to go to extreme measures to find their answers. This means, tormenting Kane’s widow in the midst of her grieving; rifling through Kane’s personal journals and affects, and nosing around Kane’s personal life by attempting to drag information which is obviously personal, out of Kane’s closest acquaintances.

So as I alluded, this seems innocent, but it is clearly not. And with the help of Welles’ use of the dark and the smoke, we the viewers may actually realize the malicious intentions of the reporters that we may not have seen in a well lit room. Sometimes the dark actually helps us to see.

In conclusion, black and white film has the ability to manipulate the audience and consequently a director, producer, etc. has so much more available to him when using black and white film. Truly great films don’t come out and directly tell you how to feel; they suggest how you should feel or even manipulate your feelings with tools such as light and angles. Orson Welles, like Hitchcock, was very conscious of the feelings within the viewers that he created with these tools, and this is why he is considered one of the greatest of all times in the trade.

It is a shame what happened to his career after he and Hearst collided as a result of the production of Citizen Kane. It is a shame that such an accomplished film-maker was reduced to some of the circus act type productions that he was involved in after Citizen Kane, but the story as a whole, not just the film, but the story and the relationship of all those involved is such a magnificent tale that we shouldn’t want it any other way.

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