Orson Welles presents himself as an interesting phenomenon of studio era Hollywood. His aggressive and independent methods as a filmmaker are what both brought him his early success and later drove him away to European productions. But regardless of location, Welles the artist manifests himself in all of his work with film.
Welles relationship with the camera is both intimate and precise. The kinetic energy of the camera in his early film The Hearts of Age foreshadows the grand tracking shot that opens Touch Of Evil and the painter’s studio sequence in The Trial. These larger than life moving camera sequences do two things in his films. First, they distort the audience’s perception of the scene in a highly stylized fashion completely artificial. Though this may seem in concept to distance an audience, it actually uses the technical aspects of filmmaking [shot composition in this case] to further dramatic effect. The tracking shot in Touch of Evil begins with a dramatic crane shot following a close-up. This high and away shot leaves the soon to explode car smaller in frame with room for an eminent explosion that the audience is immediately anticipating. But Welles continues the shot, following the car till it runs parallel to Heston and Leigh. Here, the camera comes into a medium shot so that the audience will become involved with their intimacies. This parallel heightens the audience’s dread. Likewise, Welles choreographs similar juxtapositions in the newspaper party sequence from Citizen Kane. In close-up, Cotton runs off a monologue on the abuse of power, frowning over his drink, while reflected in the windows behind him, the very man he is judging [Kane] dances with girls. The parallel here [in an immobile shot] is that of two characters vastly different but wielding the same power over one another. The frame set up does everything to present the core of these two characters and their relationship in a single shot. Welles interest in such singular and isolated characters allows him this artificial approach as long as it only reveals more about the characters he is interested in. Though this approach makes for a consciously filmic aesthetic that may be the point of Welles. He seems to strive for understanding via the sacrifice of realism and sometimes belief.
This interest in characters is the crux of any Welles film. He has a very distinct sense of character distribution. Each film has it’s core characters Citizen Kane had Kane & Leland, Mr. Arkadin had Arkadin & Van Stratten, Touch Of Evil had Quinlan & Vargas, and The Trial had Josef K. & The Advocate. Every pair has a significant similarity, one has the power to achieve his ambitions while the other has to gain that power, but in each case, they all have very similar characteristics. For instance, Quinlan has the power of experience, a jaded morality and community, while Vargas [in the film’s context] is seemingly alone on his crusade for justice by the book. They are otherwise both lawmen with the same goals and similar ideals, though it is the route by which they protect and achieve these ideals that define them and are in turn defined by their power/opportunity. Welles analyzes this struggle between the two men as they confront each other with their contradictory methods by allowing the audience to see as much of them as possible and not limiting their screen time to the time they appear together.
Welles will, in his exploration of characters, turn much of the supporting cast into “pulp” caricatures, especially in his mystery films. In Touch of Evil Tamiroff and Weaver provide very acute examples of this notion. Tamiroff is a seedy thug with greaser enforcers and a wig. Neither is very realistic, but is understood in popular culture to be humorously pianistic. Thus he never becomes the serious threat that Quinlan is, but rather aids the image of Quinlan and the dimensions of his character with the sacrifice of his own character detail. Weaver’s artificiality works the same way, lends more of a threatening connotation to Leigh’s assailants and later to Heston’s anxieties. Similarly, Moorehead and Comingore provide little depth of their own, but work as an exploratory tool of the Kane character in Citizen Kane.
This interest in specifics carries over into the shooting once again. The odd floor to ceiling framing of the room wrecking sequence in Citizen Kane, pushes Kane back into a smaller perspective. The audience immediately feels his anxiety as power eludes him and loneliness closes in, not through Welles’ bravado performance, but also in Tolland and Welles’ framing. The low shots of Quinlan in Touch Of Evil invest his character with power, working the audience the same way. Welles’ specificity in framing characters to extend the exploration of their facets is a theme in his work.
Welles’ auturism seems to hinge on this “Wellesian Distribution of Characters”, since his interest in these select characters define more often then not the look of each film. A constant concern in his work is the exploration of “man” via these characters. Welles has no problem with artifice in his work if it enables an audience to invest, as he does, into the analysis of these characters.