****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia
screenplay by Orson Welles, based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
directed by Orson Welles
by Alex Jackson Particularly in light of its 50th Anniversary DVD reissue, which gathers together all three extant versions of the film, I find myself grouping writer-director Orson Welles's Touch of Evil with multiple-incarnated masterworks like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and, to a lesser extent, Dawn of the Dead and Brazil. Moreover, I don't quite see it as a 1950s noir thriller from Universal, or even really as an Orson Welles picture--rather, I look at Touch of Evil as a canonical part of every young (male?) cinephile's indoctrination. It occurs to me that you should be able to buy one-sheets for it at your local record store. So I was mildly surprised to hear Jonathan Rosenbaum admit in his audio commentary that he disliked the picture when he saw it as a teenager. He explains that he tied it too closely into the film noir genre and found it an unpleasant specimen. David Edelstein, in his theatrical review of the 1998 restoration, writes that he initially regarded it as one of the worst movies ever made. The picture neatly conformed to his preconceptions of what bad movies are like.
My positive reaction to the film as a teen may, in fact, have been heavily coloured by two fairly high-profile Hollywood films from the mid-Nineties: Ed Wood and Get Shorty. In Ed Wood, the eponymous director meets Orson Welles in a bar and proceeds to complain about his troubles with financing Plan 9 From Outer Space, how the moneymen always want him to cast their friends. "Tell me about it," Welles says, "I'm supposed to be directing a thriller for Universal with Charlton Heston as a Mexican." This is a distortion of history that has angered a few fans of Heston and Welles alike. In reality, not only was Heston integral in getting Welles signed on to write and direct, but his character was originally white and it was Welles who reconceived him as Mexican. Regardless, the equation of Wood, the writer-director of the "worst film of all time" (Plan 9 from Outer Space), with Welles, the writer-director of the "greatest film of all time" (Citizen Kane), is a legitimate one that transcends irony. "Greatest" and "worst" sit at the poles of the mediocrity that constitutes most Hollywood output.
Get Shorty is more direct. Gangster Chilli Palmer (John Travolta) invites aging starlet Karen Flores (Renee Russo) to attend a Touch of Evil screening by asking, "You wanna go check it out? See Charlton Heston play a Mexican?" She walks into the theatre at the end, catching Chilli as he's reciting the film's closing lines. There's an undeniable camp element to Touch of Evil, and it sometimes seems that the most appropriate reaction is to feel superior towards it. It doesn't just have Charlton Heston playing a Mexican, it also has Orson Welles dressing down by making himself look morbidly obese, prompting Marlene Dietrich-as-a-gypsy to dryly tell him, "You're a mess, honey." (It would be an understatement to call that an understatement.) Perhaps the goofiest bit is voyeuristic lesbian gangster Mercedes McCambridge (who was already pretty cool in my book for giving voice to the demon in The Exorcist) asking Janet Leigh, "Do you know about the Mary Jane?" Later, we hear the head of the crime family forbid his underlings to smoke marijuana, lest they get "hooked."
But if you go into Touch of Evil hating the movies, by the time it's over you will have learned to love them. Though the audience laughs at the "See Charlton Heston play a Mexican" line in Get Shorty, they recognize him mouthing along to the movie itself as a romantic moment. Touch of Evil, and the particular way it's used in Ed Wood and Get Shorty, legitimized the affection I had for kitsch. It helped show me that Wood's films weren't so bad they're good, they're just good. Like Welles's body of work, they have a hallucinatory, fantastic quality that is unique to the cinema. Kitsch and sensationalism aren't antithetical to the art of the movies, they are the art of the movies. If a film isn't attacking you--if it isn't making you feel even a little bit uncomfortable, or producing sensations you're not quite sure how to deal with--I don't know that it's really doing its job.
For the uninitiated, newlyweds Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Heston), a United Nations representative, and his wife Susie (Leigh) have crossed the border into Mexico to begin their honeymoon when a car containing a wealthy businessman and his mistress blows up. Vargas can't help but be drawn into the case, which is being investigated by the legendary Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). While sitting in on Quinlan's preliminary interrogation of a potential suspect, a Mexican shoe salesman, Vargas accidentally discovers that Quinlan has planted evidence and plans to railroad the accused. Parallel to this, the Grandi gang is terrorizing the neglected Susie. Vargas is in the midst of prosecuting the Grandi patriarch and second-in-command Uncle Joe Grandi is working closely within the limits of the law to force him to quit.
What especially impressed me in this most recent viewing of Touch of Evil are Welles's brilliant characterizations. So often movie characters seem only to exist within the closed system of the film. By contrast, the personalities populating Touch of Evil have rich pasts that eclipse the meagre requirements of the plot. We surmise that Vargas and Susie both grew up in wealthy families and that Susie's mother is mildly uncomfortable with Vargas's Mexican heritage. Susie appears to come from a subtly racist family and this racism lies dormant in her. She calls one of the Grandi boys "Pancho" and tells her husband she would be more comfortable staying in a hotel on the American side of the border. Marrying a Mexican could be her way of repressing these feelings. Similarly, there may be a part of Vargas that is remorseful for his Anglicization and determined to atone for it by cleaning out gangsters like Grandi and protecting disenfranchised working-class Mexicans like the boy accused of the bombing.
We can make fewer assumptions about Quinlan. Forty years ago, his wife was strangled with a piece of string and he was denied his revenge. (The killer died in the First World War.) Since then, Quinlan has been determined to see the "guilty" brought to "justice" and uses illegal means to ensure it. A recovering alcoholic, he falls off the wagon after Vargas threatens to expose him. Meanwhile, Quinlan's partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) adores him, in large part because Quinlan took a bullet for Menzies that rendered him lame in one leg. When Vargas presents Menzies with evidence of Quinlan's wrongdoing, Menzies is devastated. Not only is he forced to renege on his life debt to Quinlan, his idealization of him is spoiled, too, and he's left without a hero.
In the minor role of a night hotel clerk, Dennis Weaver is nothing short of brilliant. He transforms this non-entity into a sexually repressed, possibly mentally-challenged nervous wreck. A whole movie could be made about him...and has! With a returning Janet Leigh, no less! According to rumour, the clerk was an inspiration for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It's richly rewarding to see such a potent and idiosyncratic portrayal employed simply so that every single minute of the film has something to tickle our taste buds. Yet it also illustrates this core idea that each and every character is the centre of his or her own narrative. The clerk repeatedly identifies himself as the "night man," and indeed, this is the sole context by which we know him. On the other hand, describing him merely as the "night man" feels inadequate. Touch of Evil would make an interesting companion piece to Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York--which, as its title suggests, deals with the insufficiency of art as a summation of human endeavour. If you try to tell your own life story, you must additionally tell the story of every one else in your life, or else you won't be able to accurately depict the effect their lives have had on yours. And that's just for starters. In Touch of Evil, Kaufman's ruminations are applied to a genre piece that is all narrative.
The deep reality of Welles's characterizations could be more conventionally read as the ultimate actualization of noir fatalism. Vargas, Quinlan, and their circle of associates are so unconventional that the usual tropes won't work on them--they have to be the victims of dumb luck. If the Vargases weren't honeymooning on that specific night, and if the bomber hadn't selected that moment to kill the businessman, Quinlan's career never would've wound up in jeopardy. Vargas and Quinlan don't complement each other--they don't need one another; they are not co-dependent. They could've plausibly gone their entire lives without a face-to-face encounter. Sometimes the planets align in such a precise way as to fuck over as many people as possible.
Even in their three-dimensionality, Vargas and Quinlan exist as potent genre archetypes, though. With a cane that insinuates castration (and prosthetic compensation) and his round, egg-like figure intimating a more advanced stage of feminization, Quinlan embodies post-war emasculation. His antagonism towards the Mexican Vargas is born largely from the depressing realization that he himself is obsolete. That a man's job becomes irreparably less manly once a Mexican can do it. The shoe clerk Vargas frames reveals that his wealthy fiancé chased him. He was interested in her for her money and she was interested in him for sex. He's essentially a trophy husband, another in a long line of noir gigolos (Sunset Boulevard, Possessed, The Killing, Scarlet Street). This is the world in which Quinlan finds himself.
Heston has said that Touch of Evil is really about the downfall of Hank Quinlan, his character the primary catalyst for it. Strangely, I don't much identify with Quinlan. If I find him interesting, it's in a very abstract way; I like Heston's Vargas a lot better. I realized I love this film during an unbroken take of Heston putting on a pair of sunglasses while crossing the street to use the telephone. Shortly thereafter is a great shot of him lighting a cigarette. This guy looks hard enough to fuck a rock. Michael Mourlet, co-editor of the journal PRESENCE DU CINEMA, said it better than I ever could:
Charlton Heston is an axiom. By himself alone he constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty. The contained violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle's profile, the haughty arch of his eyebrows, his prominent cheekbones, the bitter and hard curve of his mouth, the fabulous power of his torso; this is what he possesses and what not even the worst director can degrade. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his existence alone, gives a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima, Mon Amour or Citizen Kane, whose aesthetic either ignores or impugns Charlton Heston.
If Citizen Kane is a "less accurate definition of the cinema" for possessing an "aesthetic that either ignore or impugns Charlton Heston," Welles more than makes up for it in Touch of Evil.
Actually, I have a distinctly personal attachment to Heston in this film: he reminds me of my paternal grandfather. Heston's WASPish, stoic intensity always recalls Grandpa to some extent in my mind, but here it's underscored by some superficial factors (the late-Fifties era, the Mexican border (my grandfather retired to New Mexico), the moustache). This accentuates my powerfully emotional, nay, romantic attachment to the character, but it also accentuates my identification with him. Accentuates my identification with him, I stress--it's not the source of it. I don't believe I side with Vargas over Quinlan because he's the good guy and I'm ethically opposed to Quinlan's Machiavellianism. It's more that I'm repulsed by the fatalism Quinlan embodies. Near the end of the film, Quinlan visits Dietrich's gypsy whore and demands she tell his fortune. "Your future is all used up," she responds. That's too horrifying for me to contemplate, the notion of your future being all used up.
Touch of Evil provides an out via the Vargas character. Sure, there are indicators that Vargas could turn out like Quinlan. He's neglectful of his wife and partially responsible for her getting terrorized. When he discovers she was kidnapped, he flies into a rage and ironically drives past her hotel room while she's screaming for help, fully intent on tracking down her abductors and roughing them up. To ensure Quinlan is convicted for a murder committed later in the film, Vargas puts a wire on Menzies and asks him to coax a confession out of Quinlan. This is certainly morally questionable, if not in the same league as planting evidence. We can see how Vargas could turn against the law for failing to keep his wife safe, as well as for distracting him from his husbandly duty of protecting her. And we see how he could turn into someone as revenge-bent and capable of murder as Quinlan.
Still, this is strictly projection on our part. Just because Vargas has the capacity to cross over to the dark side, it doesn't necessarily follow that he will. What's finally attractive about Vargas is not that he's on the side of good, but that his future isn't "all used up." By centring our reading of the film around Vargas, the downfall of Quinlan becomes a cautionary tale. Anyone can lose the people they love and betray their ideals, yet through Vargas we are able to optimistically doubt it'll ever happen to us. I honestly wonder whether fifty, forty, maybe thirty years from now I'll identify more with Quinlan, whether his story will acquire a certain catharsis. Judging by Edelstein's and Rosenbaum's turnarounds on the film, one aspect of its greatness might be that it's able to accommodate us as we age.
Upon turning in a rough cut of the film to Universal, Welles hightailed it Mexico to work on his independently-financed (and never-finished) adaptation of Don Quixote. In his absence, Universal re-edited Touch of Evil and commissioned re-shoots from studio workhorse Harry Keller. The results inspired Welles to write a 58-page memo recommending a number of changes. While the memo was essentially ignored, Universal cobbled together a second preview and subsequently removed thirteen minutes to arrive at the theatrical version. (The second preview cut is the one preserved on DVD.) In 1998, in time for the picture's 40th anniversary, American producer Rick Schmidlin collaborated with celebrated film editor Walter Murch and Welles scholar Rosenbaum on a "restored version" incorporating or trying to honour all of Welles's suggested changes.
The restoration makes three significant alterations to the theatrical and preview versions. The least controversial and most beneficial lifts a shot of Vargas and Susan reconciling in a hotel lobby. This was one of Keller's re-shoots and Welles was adamant about its removal from the film. He legitimately observes in his memo that it undercuts the tension between Vargas and Susan, but there's the added problem of it not being a very interesting shot on its own terms. It looks like a hasty re-shoot. Though it would be unfair to complain about the uninventive lighting (as the setting is flatly bright by nature), it's blocked as a static two-shot, lending it an unattractive, stagebound quality. It doesn't fit on an aesthetic or emotional level, and it brings the film to a grinding halt.
After Menzies is confronted with evidence of Quinlan's corruption, there was a close-up of him resting his head on a desk virtually on the verge of tears. Welles requested that this shot be taken out, as it was unflattering to actor Calleia. There is a consensus among Schmidlin, Rosenbaum, and Murch that without this shot, Menzies emerges as a stronger character. Now, when he turns Quinlan in, it's a moral stance, whereas before he was simply defeated and didn't have a choice. The pathetic, beaten Menzies is more interesting than this revised Menzies, however. By eliding this close-up, the extent of his childlike, almost homoerotic attachment to Quinlan is lost. Mind you, continuity-wise, I'm not sure the shot belongs. He paces back and forth, rests his head, and then gets back up again. It stands to reason that once he's down, he should pretty much stay down or otherwise be considerably more sluggish throughout the rest of the scene.
Lastly, there is the opening sequence. In the preview and theatrical versions, Welles's famed three-minute-and-thirty-second unbroken tracking shot depicting the unwitting transport of a car bomb across the border included the title and opening credits in addition to a main-title theme from Harry Mancini. It was Welles's intention to drop the Mancini score from and exclusively use diegetic music in this sequence. He wanted a contrasting mixture of "'mambo type' rhythm numbers with rock 'n' roll" to create the effect of passing several diverse nightclubs and cabarets all vying for attention. Although Welles's memo indicates that he didn't have a concrete idea of where to put the opening credits and was mainly concerned with the sound design, the restored version deletes them entirely.
Of all the ways the restored version varies from the theatrical cut, this one divides me the most. The realism of the new soundtrack enhances the suspense of the unbroken tracking shot. You're more aware that a ticking timebomb could go off at any moment. And the remix better conveys the film's key motif of racial, socio-economic, ethical, and just plain geographic borders becoming diffused. But I appreciate the artifice of the original version. I like how it announces itself from the onset as a down-and-dirty, semi-campy pulp fiction. Touch of Evil opens up into a lot of interesting directions the more we recognize it as, first and foremost, a "genre film."
The preview version was fortuitously uncovered in the mid-'70s by a USC film professor who had requested a print to screen for his class. Given that there was a growing cult surrounding Welles's work, Universal released this version in 1976 as the true "director's cut" of the film. In actuality, it doesn't hew much closer to Welles's intentions, although it does contain a key sequence (of Grandi trailing Susan and Vargas to their hotel) whose inexplicable omission from the theatrical version caused needless confusion for 1958 audiences.
The film's 50th Anniversary Edition DVD implicitly proffers the restored version as the default option, housing it on the first disc with two retrospective docs while relegating the theatrical and preview versions to a second platter. On the whole, this reflects my feelings on the subject: whenever I want to watch Touch of Evil, I plan on spinning the restored version. It's the longest of the three, but paradoxically the leanest as well. And it overwhelms you with sensory input in a way the fattier theatrical and preview cuts simply do not. The restored version has had another pass through the telecine since its initial DVD release in 2000; presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen*, it looks noticeably clearer and bolder here than ever before. Transferred at the same aspect ratio and likewise enhanced for 16x9 displays, the other versions, while sufficiently clean, are comparatively lacking in vitality. Though the mixes differ from film to film, the accompanying Dolby 2.0 mono audio warrants few criticisms across the board.
Four feature-length commentaries are wisely scattered among the three versions of the film. In the first, gracing the restored version, Schmidlin guides Heston and Leigh through the film. The two actors are clearly nonplussed and a tad frustrated by the fact that Schmidlin knows considerably more about the production than they do, effectively reducing their presence to a novelty. ("You've certainly done your research," Heston half-sneers with his patented subsumed rage.) On the plus side, Chuck manages to drop a Ronald Reagan reference. Schmidlin is by himself on the second yak-track, recalling the various twists and turns the project took and saying how honoured he was that Dennis Weaver mentioned him in his autobiography and that every cineaste should own a copy of The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing. He's excited by the film and the process of restoring and promoting it.
Where Schmidlin's enthusiasm for Touch of Evil is almost childlike and thus somewhat disposable, F.X. Feeney's feels like religion. His yakker for the theatrical version is among the finest I've heard for any film; Feeney elevates talking over movies to an artform. An introduction describing the airborne camera in the opening shot as "moving like a winged serpent across these rooftops and streets" is a bit overwritten, but he won me over completely when he almost says "and then make love" instead of "make movies." That's a Freudian slip I can get behind. When Quinlan dies, Feeney memorializes him by reading a passage from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. It's a bold, powerfully romantic gesture that reaches from far outside the box. I greatly appreciated Feeney's yakker on The Towering Inferno despite having reservations about him staying in an apolitical and amoral domain of film analysis, focusing on the how as opposed to the how come. What a difference it makes, putting his gifts to work on something like Touch of Evil instead!
Rosenbaum and James Naremore are noticeably more detached in their commentary on the preview version. Still, it's a very rich discussion, informative enough to be called the most essential of the four. While Feeney's may be my favourite, he's not where you should start your education. Rosenbaum and Naremore tell us everything we could possibly want to know about Touch of Evil. I especially admire that they demonstrate a certain discomfort with the film's darkly comic "camp" elements--it keeps the picture alive and immune to embalmment. There are contradictions within Touch of Evil that are impossible to definitively resolve and Rosenbaum and Naremore wisely choose to savour them.
"Bringing Evil to Life" (21 mins.) is a worthy making-of featurette highlighted, surprisingly enough, by famed Welles sycophant Peter Bogdanovich. He tells us that Welles genuinely hated being thought of as a show-off and only did the first scene in one long take because he couldn't think of a better way. Also, he was outraged when Bogdanovich confessed that he didn't understand the plot and, furthermore, didn't much care to understand it. Bogdanovich brought up The Big Sleep as proof that these things don't matter and Welles countered that he never understood why there was a cult for The Big Sleep anyway. God help me, I found this stuff fascinating--it's reasonably fresh material that isn't repeated in any of the attendant commentaries. "Evil Lost and Found" (17 mins.), on the other hand, is somewhat superfluous. The story of the film's history and restoration is drilled into our skulls elsewhere and in greater detail. Both of these pieces, however, offer the thrill of seeing surviving cast members in the flesh and of hearing Murch himself describe his insights into Touch of Evil's restoration. Rounding out the package are a trailer for the 1958 theatrical release and a hard-copy reproduction of Welles's legendary memo. Originally published: January 12, 2009.
*How's this for irony? As I understand it, Welles originally wanted to photograph Touch of Evil in a widescreen format but was forced by Universal to shoot it open-matte, in anticipation of a smooth transition to television for the film. When it was re-edited in 1998, the production team offered to oversee the restorations in Academy ratio, but by this time widescreen was the industry standard and so the studio elected to matte it to 1.85:1 for theatres and home video. Hard to say what exactly the aspect ratio should be, at least from an auteurist perspective. return