Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If we’re to believe the old story about Orson Welles’ return to Hollywood being driven by a bet that he could make a great film out of an awful script, it’s fun to imagine him working over the hackneyed story at the center of Touch of Evil with outrageous compositions and long takes, overlapping dialogue and a feel of genuine disorientation that calls ahead to his subsequent masterpiece The Trial. If ever a film’s appeal could be marked down almost entirely to its mise en scene, this would be the one, but like a passionate vocal sparking the innate appeal of a half-hearted song, Welles’ creative input and the plot reinforce one another. In even a film with such disputed parentage as this one, in even a film with such impure aspirations (much like The Stranger, his straightforward studio thriller from 1946), it seems a brilliant artist cannot stop himself from saying something worth hearing — finally, something as fascinating, complex and enigmatic as what we might find in any piece of cinema.

Part of the key to Touch of Evil lies outside of Welles’ tradition and more firmly in the vernacular of film noir generally; the picture remains one of the sterling, irreducibly grand introductions to the accidental genre. A workmanlike, slightly campy, even B-grade crime drama among many, it’s the kind of thing that — were it made now — we’d recognize as practically a cult film by design, similar to Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter or the obscure, leering freakshow Dementia, a film whose primary purpose isn’t necessarily to find the widest possible audience. That Touch of Evil boasts an all-star cast, Henry Mancini music and nearly seamless production values (if not editing) can be attributed to the fact that several parties in its creation had hopes resting upon it higher than it could deliver. Now it’s hard to imagine not finding its light surrealism and faint terror thoroughly arresting, but its crucial otherworldliness is generated by how completely and convincingly it occurs in a semi-unreal universe beautifully established by Welles. It pops out in three eerie dimensions, and you feel for a time that you’re living in its sleazy and unpredictable rhythms, like a twisted, foreboding Casablanca.

Where the writer-director himself comes in is unmistakable: from the justifiably famous opening shot, among the most celebrated sequences in the history of movies, it worldlessly invokes a key tenet of noir that would perhaps only be so elegantly established by one other director, years later (Roman Polanski in Chinatown). Without even yet knowing the film’s characters, premise or (except intuitively) setting, it shows us a dangerous, suspenseful situation — a bomb placed in a car, which then moves through crowds of people — and steeps us in the confusion of bustle. Its characters and audience are of a piece, all scrambling to understand what happened, what’s happening now, and why. In truth, the specific machinations of the story that unfolds after the explosion are less important than the seedy reality they imply: a tough, unsentimental environment of corrupt police so corrupt that it’s normalized and celebrated, cash-grabbing gangsters and addicts, faces and souls that are not to be trusted.

In the middle of all this, Welles centers a couple earmarked as a symbol of purity. More precisely, he throws them into an infernal mixture and the studio chose to center them after growing dissatisfied with his vision of the picture. It was believed it was too confusing for an audience to follow. Since this critique could apply to numerous mystery and noir pictures that had been box office smashes, like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, one assumes Welles’ extravagant filmmaking methods played a larger role in this fight than his mere plotting. The couple are the Hollywood Stars: Charlton Heston as responsible-to-the-point-of-dullness Mexican (!) anti-drug fighter Vargas and his new American wife Susan, played by Janet Leigh, given some good lines and moments by Welles early on but then stuck (for not the last time in her career) in a seedy motel run by a local weirdo (Dennis Weaver) for half the movie.

Welles himself plays the great ambiguous villain, beloved Texan police captain Hank Quinlan, a booze-guzzling, evidence-planting, morbidly obese, morally irredeemable monster of a man who somehow manages to become a figure of odd fascination and vague admiration. Rarely has a film presented so thoroughly evil a man and still allowed so nuanced a perspective on him. The film kicks into gear when Quinlan and a family-run gang south of the border find they have a shared motivation for bringing the wide-eyed Vargas down, all sparked somehow by that bomb in that car. It’s all but impossible to reconcile the Welles we see onscreen, muttering incomprehensibly, slapping suspects, murdering people because it makes things convenient for him, and waxing nostalgic about the days when he chowed down at the whorehouse and no one questioned his authority, with the Welles we know to stand behind the camera, filled with wild enthusiasm as he chooses to film each scene in the most fluid, galvanizing, difficult manner imaginable, his camera hyperactive and eager, his intent clearly to disallow the audience from seeing their time in this nightmare as any kind of an escape.

It had become tradition by now for all of Welles’ studio pictures to be somehow compromised. Only Citizen Kane had reached the public with the director’s original intentions untampered. Touch of Evil was pulled by Universal for reshoots by no-name Harry Keller, with several scenes awkwardly added to give the stars more screentime and to attempt to clarify the story. The results pleased no one; Welles shot off an angry memo, later the basis for a semi-reconstruction released in 1998 despite a considerable amount of footage being lost forever, and the studio barely released the film as the back-end of a double feature. But it lives on, extant now in three versions, and any way one views it, it comes across more coherently now than its reputation suggests. There isn’t that much missing from the release print, and all of the variants contain enough intrigue, art and unfettered evidence of Welles’ voice to stand distinctly apart from the mountains of ’50s Hollywood noir.

That’s because, like most of this director’s film work, Touch of Evil stands up as a funhouse mirror to a world of moral, political and personal confusion we all know extremely well because it’s our own. When Marlene Dietrich has few kind words to say for her fallen friend Quinlan except to chirp that he was “some kind of a man,” she speaks for a warped respect all too real and familiar, an integrity of good and bad and kind and corrupt that resonates even at a time when cops are primarily known in this country for killing unarmed people. Welles makes no excuses for his counterpart, but he also allows for empathy; the perversity of this action lights up the darkness in the corners of sinister hotel rooms, blackened alleyways, burned-out cars and sickly-bare border streets rife with hustling and peddling, all of it for honor, survival, selfishness, whatever. It’s almost a Renoir-like take on the crime thriller: everyone really does have their reasons. Welles can see and even vaguely identify with the tears of a man like Quinlan whose system of hatred and kickback is crumbling before his eyes; his bawdy, violent film noir has an action-packed climax that’s rife with vague but unmistakable melancholy. It’s this sophistication, this questioning and violation of conventional movie heroism, that makes Touch of Evil an endlessly provocative, engaging experience, and — against the odds — one of the finest moments for one of the last century’s greatest artists.

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