Friday, May 13, 2011

Touch of Evil (1958)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles, Whit Masterson, Paul Monash, Franklin Coen
Photography: Russell Metty
Music: Henry Mancini
Editors: Walter Murch (1998 re-edit), Aaron Stell, Virgil W. Vogel, Edward Curtiss
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Valentin de Vargas, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotten

For all the unprecedented latitude that Orson Welles enjoyed in making his first feature, Citizen Kane, it sometimes seems like he spent the rest of his career paying for it—and I think that's more reality than perception, or than rotten luck on the part of Welles, or even than a natural result of an obnoxious personality clashing with Hollywood bigwigs. Across the fullness of his career, it's almost as if he were cursed. The Magnificent Ambersons (another one we will be getting to) may stand as the most egregious example of a film taken away from Welles and wrecked, but Touch of Evil certainly fits the profile too, and has the added distinction of being Welles's last attempt to make a Hollywood picture.

It's altogether an extraordinary way for Welles to end the sour relationship with Hollywood, featuring a cast full of fine performances and surprising grotesqueries, a screenplay tight as a drum that relentlessly goes from dark to black, a bracing performance of his own, and a few technical tricks still up his sleeve as well.

I should mention that I am writing after looking at the 1998 recut, which was based 40 years late on changes that Welles requested in a lengthy memo upon seeing the version of it created by the studio after Welles had finished his work on it. Once again, the tangle of versions with some of these classic movies can get to be somewhat daunting. In this case, the studio not only re-edited what Welles had put together as a basic final cut of Touch of Evil, but actually went back and reshot new scenes as well. (I should also mention that I have not revisited that older original mangled version, which seems to be easily enough available on VHS, mostly because this newer version is now widely accepted as the more authentic and preferred, and also because I just plain thought of it too late. Oops—if anything strikes me about it when I get around to looking at it I will circle back here and update.)

Among other things, the picture now stands as a kind of milestone marking the end of the "classic" period of Hollywood film noir, an exasperatingly slippery term whose meaning recedes into murk as easily as the shadows that tend to mark the films it's used to describe. Nevertheless, it's easy to see how Touch of Evil fits, with its inky black photography and meditation on corruption: matters of police administration and personal moral responsibility are the most obvious levels that it explores, but there's room here as well for the supreme injustice of an uncaring universe, which thoroughly haunts just about everything.

What sometimes seems to stick in people's minds most about Touch of Evil is the long and complex tracking shot that opens it, and it is indeed impressive—and, at the same time, not really all that. By which I mean that it's almost distracting, too much of a kind of stunt or gimmick. A few cuts might have actually made it easier to focus instead on the canny way the opening sequence introduces the film's most seductive and powerful metaphor, at once simple and profound: the border, an artificially created demarcation point across which the players continually traverse back and forth, with the story ultimately making the case that the line it's intended to represent is just meaningless.

Another distracting issue many have quick opinions on is the casting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican, his face smeared down with a muddy overlay but not even an attempt at an accent. I admit it's a little weird, but in the end there is actually very little about it that bothers me. Yes, Heston is as plodding and wooden as he ever is. But putting him in the role of Mike Vargas, the hyper-civilized and overbearingly supercilious upright cop seems to me to work on two levels. First, especially in noirs, the good guys almost always are stiff and wooden, so that's just playing it exactly right. Second, making the Mexican official in this story the tragic uncorrupted figure who is doomed to failure seems to me a nicely calculated counterintuitive move, one that continually confounds typical expectations and keeps us more alert to the nuance of the action (although, yeah, it might have helped some if Heston had managed anything like an accent).

In fact, I think the shrewd casting all through this production stands as the picture's single strongest element, from the main players down to the smallest roles (though it's got a first-rate screenplay too, and that doesn't hurt anything). Janet Leigh, for example, is just about perfect as Susie Vargas, the goody-two-shoes newlywed bride of Heston's Mike Vargas, as she repeatedly finds herself luridly imperiled, which is particularly effective in an elaborate sequence at a motel from hell that also features hoodlums, hypodermic syringes, and rock 'n' roll.

Marlene Dietrich is glowing and almost otherworldly as Tanya, who appears to be a past love interest of Hank Quinlan (played by Orson Welles) and who now operates a border joint on the Mexican side, with a pianola that plays a haunting refrain over and over. Even though she's ostensibly been planted in the Mexican backwater for decades, she remains as German and sophisticated as ever. "You should lay off those candy bars," she tells Quinlan when she first recognizes him, seeing him for the first time in many years—delivering the line in a way that is at once vaguely alarmed and dispassionate, simply by the ways she widens her eyes.

Akim Tamiroff as the oily Uncle Joe Grandi who can never keep his toupee on his head right, and shuttles seamlessly between a disquieting malevolence and a foolish pathos, is another memorable player. So is Dennis Weaver as an addled motel night man who knows things are not as they should be but furiously denies even what's most obvious, desperately trying to keep his hands clean of responsibility. And Joseph Calleia is just good as Quinlan's loyal partner, willfully blind to Quinlan's many failings and defects because Quinlan saved his life once. Joseph Cotten even makes an effective quasi-cameo as a coroner.

But it's Orson Welles himself, of course, who practically steals the whole show in a rumbling, menacing performance, waddling and lumbering through the dark of the frames, all appetite and swallowed language and cynical aggression, brushing aside characters and wasting lives like so many flies alighting on his sandwich. He is an almost perfect monster in this—but he never overplays that. Instead, he simply hits the marks and goes through the paces of the story and the screenplay that tells it so skillfully, as it hurtles toward its resolution of awful finality. In the end, his performance is the most indelible part of it, the piece that stays with me longest.

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