Audience front and centre in Touch of Evil

This is an amazing scene from the beginning of Touch of Evil (1958) in the form most preferred by its director Orson Welles (from a 1998 release with the opening titles and Henri Mancini’s soundtrack removed). The premise is simple, the ticking bomb placed in the boot of the car in the opening seconds creates a path of tension through the entire scene, most of which is carried out in a single tracking shot, which draws out the tension.

For me it’s one of the most distilled examples of a cinematic technique where the audience in effect conspires with the makers of the film to realise the drama – it’s only the audience that feels the tension – the characters are totally unaware of their predicament. It establishes a direct relationship between us, as viewers, and the characters on the screen, putting us in a position of power – we have knowledge the characters do not – but also in a totally disempowered situation – we can’t alter the course of what’s going to happen to that bomb, whether it’s discovered and everyone lives, or whether it does, in fact, detonate. Hitchcock, another cinema virtuoso calls this imbalance of knowledge the epitome of suspense, and Alexander Mackendrick, a great film maker and one of its greatest educators, names it dramatic irony. The main point for me, as a composer, is that the audience is essential to the effectiveness of the scene – they complete the picture.
It’s the same with music.
It’s not necessary to know the precise feelings and thoughts of the audience, each member will have their own highly individual response, but when there is active participation in the listening experience the audience becomes a kind of massed resonating body, reverberating with, and being changed by, the music we write and perform.
Header image by Elijah Flores on Unsplash.

Leave a Reply