The Infamous Tracking Shot in Touch Of Evil (1958)

In class we have seen a wide variety of unique opening sequences, but few are done with as much precision as the opening to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. The opening sequence is a three minute tracking shot set in a busy Mexican street that ends across the border into America. Through a three minute continuous shot, Welles was able to create an experimental beginning that establishes various themes for the rest of the movie.

The shot itself is a perfectly choreographed dance that is captured by a camera which moves throughout the streets. The movie begins with a clock attached with dynamite in the hands of an unknown assailant. This provides a running clock for the scene to take place. When the clock runs out of time, the car explodes and the sequence ends. The music in the background is one with horns and a steady Latin beat in the background, which sounds like the ticking of a clock. The bomb is set and placed in the trunk of a convertible, and the camera is elevated as a couple approaches the car. The couple turns on the car and radio as the camera continues to rise. Playing on the radio is a song that is heavy with electric guitars and contradicts with the Latin sound of the streets. The camera views the car pull through an ally way from roof level. It is then brought lower again as the car is stopped by a crossing guard. The car stops as the camera continues to role backwards with pedestrians and a cart are pushed passed the intersection.  Further ahead is the next crossing guard, and where are protagonists are first seen.

As Mr. and Mrs. Vargas walk, the Latin music is now restored. The pair walks hand and hand blending in with the various other people. The car with the bomb inside of it passes for a second and the electric guitars from the radio are restored. Mar. and Mrs. Vargas are able to almost dance through other pedestrians and traffic without changing their pace. The scene changes as we get to the border. As Mr. Vargas has a conversation with a border officer, the car explodes. This turns the peaceful well choreographed world into running chaos and ending the three minute tracking shot.

There is a clear change in the attitude of the streets after the explosion in the movie, which remains until the closing credits role. The explosion has thrown off the normality between the relationships of the two places. The people and vehicles that interweaved so flawlessly into each other do not flow well as they intersect. As people run to see the burning wreckage of the car, they often bump into each other as they scamper aimlessly behind Mr. Vargas. On the other side of the border we see Mrs. Vargas almost get hit by a car as she leaves the corner of the street. Through this short opening we become aware that the status quo is broken by the explosion.

In the opening we are also given a bit of a dynamic between the two sides of the border. While it appears that people cross the border frequently and with ease, there is a bit of distinction made between the two cultures. This is most notable through the sound of each place. Mexico is represented by the Latin rhythm with heavy horns while America is represented by a blaring electric sound. Mexico is seen as a place with a strong nightlife filled with sin. The first sign you see in the film neon liquor sign. While America, although rarely shown in the introduction is seen as desolate but formal.

The introduction to this movie is truly a unique beginning to a film. Many other films in the future would try to emulate or may have been influenced by this tracking shot. Quentin Tarantino uses tracking shots in many of his films and Martin Scorsese famously used one in Goodfellas. Probably the most influenced by this shot would be the opening scene of Boogie Nights, where all the major characters where introduced through tracking shot.

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