From the breathtaking three minute opening tracking shot, which is featured below , you know you are in the realm of a master film-maker. Yet, there is a hiatus to follow and the portent of this amazing opening is not realised until the last 20 minutes of the film. Welles’ last masterwork is a disconnected emotionally remote study of moral dissipation. The crisp black and white photography of Russell Metty is forensic and can only be truly appreciated in a theatre or from a HD DVD.
The camera angles and lighting that Wells pioneered are abundant but this movie has no soul. Welles delivers an excellent performance as the dissolute sheriff, as does Joseph Calleia as his loyal deputy. Charlton Heston is miscast: a moustaclhe and dark make-up do not a Mexican make. His fractured Spanish is jarring. Marlene Dietrich is nicely enigmatic as the aging whore with soul, and Janet Leigh as the ingenue wife is engaging.
The film works best in the sleazy urban settings, where the contemporary music score adds depth.
This is not a film noir. Wells reprises his Citizen Kane mise-en-scene, but there is nothing in the story that even reaches the proximity of moral ambivalence or an existential dilemma, and it is certainly not populist cinema. It is ultimately a brilliant but flawed work of cinematic ‘art’.