I’ve recently seen the famous Orson Welles movie “Touch of Evil”, and I couldn’t help but notice how well he handles the “deep focus” technique. Welles achieved great fame using that technique on Citizen Kane, in which both characters and background are always perfectly sharp, and he used it once again when filming Touch of Evil.
Nowadays the most common type of shot in cinema is the one in which the character that the audience should be paying attention to is always in focus, while the rest of the scene is usually slightly blurred. This is an easy way to get the audience to focus their attention where you want them to do it. But Orson Welles, who was also a theater director, would rather guide the viewer’s attention by movement, by the characters’ “choreography”.
In one of the most intense scenes of Touch of Evil, the character played by Charlton Heston tells the sargent, played by Joseph Calleia, that he has proofs that the police captain (evil Quinlan, played by Welles himself) faked evidence to make his job easier. During this scene the watcher’s attention goes from Heston to Calleia, depending on who has the most important line. At a brilliant moment, Heston beats Calleia’s speech and the sargent has no chance but to confess. Then Heston stays at the center of the screen, picking up the papers that prove the facts, while a defeated Calleia approaches the camera moving to the left side of the shot, and then gives the monologue in which he accepts the facts. Both characters are perfectly sharp, and Heston is at the center of the screen, but the viewer pays attention only to Calleia, because he’s the only one doing something important.
The choreography of this scene is just perfect. After seeing something like this, when I watch a contemporary movie in which a simple short focus is enough to center the viewer’s attention, I feel like directors and cinematographers have completely forgotten this technique. And it’s a shame, since deep focus can give a scene a much more intense and dramatic feeling.