Russell Metty & “A TOUCH OF EVIL:” Film Noir meets New Wave (Week 4 Handout)

by John Budde

Film Noir meets New Wave Although he worked on a huge variety of films, including SPARTACUS for Stanley Kubrick, Metty is possibly best known for his ability to bring a more dynamic style to the lower budget black and white films made by Universal Studios.

In 1958 he collaborated with Orson Welles on A TOUCH OF EVIL, and, from the very first moment, starting with an intricate, three and a half minute, rapidly-moving crane shot (probably the most famous in film history), the pace of the film is set.

The Eclair Cameflex CM3 camera, to which the French New Wave owes much, made possible that same kind of portability for which those films are famous, and none of that artistic innovation was lost on Metty. The film seems constantly in motion, with fluid hand-held scenes integrated seamlessly into the broader visual architecture. He almost seems to simultaneously redefine both that genre and Film Noir by ramping up the frequency of movement and the intensity of shadows to create a contrasty and rapid-paced visual atmosphere which strikingly complements the content of the plot.

Metty was well known for his ability to resolve, in his working method, the persistent struggle in film production between quality and speed…an aspect of his nature which Universal surely found attractive, with their lower budgets and productive output. In that regard, while somewhat lacking the formality and perfection of Gregg Toland’s work, it seems there may be some less-than-vague connection between the two. Occasionally, one does notice someone standing, for perhaps an instant, in a shadow cast by another actor (something which Toland would probably not have allowed) and the scenes, in general, are built of shots which are obviously more spontaneously executed and less carefully planned than Toland’s, but for both cinematographers, there is an unmistakable emphasis on imaginative departures from the conventional, and a daringly rich appreciation for the emotional importance of the
visual interplay between light and shadow.