Orson Welles wrote this text in response to the controversy about the aspect ratio of Touch of Evil (1958). Welles distrusted CinemaScope, VistaVision and other new widescreen processes. He preferred the classical 1.33 format. Touch of Evil would become a true nightmare for Welles, as Universal took the film in its own hands, deciding additional shooting was needed to clarify the storyline and preventing Welles from doing this. After seeing the new edit, Welles wrote a 58-page memo to explain his view on the editing, giving very detailed suggestions on how to structure the film and edit certain scenes. Unfortunately, the film was cut to a 93-minutes version. In the seventies Universal discovered a 108-minutes version in its archive, it was made in the period between Welles’ memo and the 1958 release date. Universal released this version and promoted the film as the ‘complete, uncut and restored version’ of Touch of Evil. Although it contained more scenes directed by Welles but deleted from the first final cut, this version was still no restoration. In 1998, editor Walter Murch re-edited the film based on Welles’ remarks and in collaboration with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, restorer Bob O’Neil and producer Rick Schmidlin. The new film was fifteen minutes longer and received a limited theatrical distribution in the United States.
A sheer joy in everything big was once the hallmark of Hollywood production. People have not hesitated to chide us for thinking ‘colossal’ the best superlative.
What has changed? Certainly not Hollywood.
Pure size excites us as much as ever. And what are the new screens but a paroxysm of this excitement?
But now those who mocked us run most eagerly to join in our madness.
What was the reaction, under skies one might have thought reasonable, when this monster (Frankenstein’s grandest mistake) issued, head held high, from the laboratories of Southern California? Instead of charging with pitchforks, the cinemagoers of the entire world hurled themselves to embrace this monster in a tight embrace. No shape is too demented, no size too paranoiac. In the most popular process the image is blurred, camera movements are strictly limited; good montage impossible. The frame which superficially encloses its action somewhat in the guise of a frieze is ill suited to the human form, cutting it off somewhere above the ankles and below the haunches. Which means that the actors must play their scenes thrusting themselves at us like Punch and Judy. This ‘giant screen’ is ideally suited to a ground plan of a procession or of a serpent elongated.
These very strange proportions have been dictated by the very low overhang of the balcony in certain super-cinemas, and their object has been to prevent the spectators in the back rows of the stalls from thinking that perhaps they would be better off in cheaper seats. Note that these balconies are rare and specifically American. Yet it is here, in Europe, that the new system is most popular.
Certain other processes are even larger. Many screens are bigger: observe that they are all more uproarious like an outbreak of panic. All these new processes express an identical fear: loss of confidence in the cinema itself. Technical astuteness combines in a frantic attempt to bewitch the public while submerging it.
It is unnecessary to explain in detail how the enlargement of the screen does not augment but diminishes the possibilities of expression. Every active filmmaker can testify to this; there are few effects to be got by yells and shrieks. The most exuberant stage actor would hesitate to play a piece throughout at the top of his voice. Beyond a certain point exaggeration becomes a bore. To find oneself next to the siren on the Isle de France is a magnificent experience, but one that does not gain by repetition. When the passing pleasure of physical shock has passed, the range of sensation cannot be extended by more familiarity. With the novelty vanished, we no longer respond to the appeal of the outrageous. We are content to fall asleep.
A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.
Distributors, naturally, are all of the opinion that poets don’t sell seats. They do not discern whence comes the very language of the cinema.
Without poets, the vocabulary of the film would be far too limited ever to make a true appeal to the public. The equivalent of a babble of infants would not sell many seats. If the cinema had never been fashioned by poetry, it would have remained no more than a mechanical curiosity, occasionally on view like a stuffed whale.
Everything that lives and in consequence, everything commercially saleable derives from the ability of the camera to see. It does not see naturally in place of an artist, it sees with him. The camera at such instants is far more than a registering apparatus; it is a means by which come to us messages from the other world and which let us into the great secret. This is the beginning of magic. But the charm cannot work unless the eye of the camera also is human. That eye should be on the scale of the human eye.
Man is made in God’s image. To enlarge that image is not to glorify but to deform it. It’s a sort of joke, and one doesn’t joke with God. That is not only religion but good aesthetics.
A film is a ribbon of dreams.
It can happen to us to dream in colors and sometimes in black and white, but never in CinemaScope. We never wake from a nightmare shrieking because it has been in VistaVision.
Our fantasies are not more erotic in Cinerama, and saints know no visions in Cinemiracle.
Where lies the cause for the crisis in world cinema?
In us who make films: and we have not deliberately plotted to make bad ones. Yet we attach ourselves to the dimensions laid down to us by producers. Why? Why allow the mammoths to wipe away our last normal screens?
We have discovered that the enlargement of the image, so far from enriching form or content, impoverishes the film itself. But do we not impoverish ourselves even more by abandoning the sole means which enabled us once to speak of art?
What are we referring to when we speak of the world march of the cinemas, that indispensable figment of statistics? An individual sitting in a seat, in a hall. Multiply him by quite a few millions and what do you get more than the same spectator in the plural? Unconscious of his statistical importance his dreams depend obstinately on the old human scale. No super-screen will make him a superman. He is no giant, he is only numerous.
But already he is less than this; he gets smaller every day.
Who can say that it’s an accident that the public is dwindling away as the importance of the artist is destroyed? Are giant screens a symptom or a cause?
Let us joyfully admit that there will always be a place for the circus. But let us also insist that room will always be found for whatever clowning may be foisted on us. What perverse, morbid desire delivers our world cinema to an era of nickelodeons?
Originally published in 1958 in International Film Annual N°2