Touch of Evil (1958)

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Director: Orson Welles

Producer: Albert Zugsmith (Universal)

Writers: Orson Welles (screenplay), Whit Masterson (novel)

Photography: Russell Metty

Music: Henry Mancini

Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Cook Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Valentin de Vargas, Mort Mills, Victor Millan, Lalo Rios, Risto, Michael Sargent, Phil Harvey, Joi Lansing

When it comes to the history of film noir, most scholars will put the period roughly between 1941-1958. There is some discrepency as to the true start of noir — does a detective story like The Maltese Falcon (1941) immediately constitute noir? Or does it not have more to do with femme fatales, shadows and night journeys? Is Double Indemnity (1944) not a more accurate starting point? The debate can linger on the starting point, but there is no dispute about the other bookend — Orson Welles’ masterpiece Touch of Evil.

It’s fitting that Welles be the one to cap the movement, as it was he who pioneered many elements critical to noir expression. As Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward write in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (2003), “The seminal impact of the Welles/Gregg Toland collaboration on Citizen Kane (1941) gave later directors, cinematographers, and designers access to a wide range of previously unproven visual methods.” (A) Welles’ memorable performance in Carol Reed’s noir masterpiece The Third Man (1949) continued his hand in the movement, and nearly a decade later, he would close the era with his own, highly-stylized “touch of noir.”

Loosely based off the 1956 novel Badge of Evil, written by Robert Allison Wade and H. Bill Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson, Touch of Evil takes place in a U.S.-Mexico border town full of crooks, whores and corrupt cops. It’s here that honest Mexican detective Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) takes his new American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) for a “chocolate soda” on their honeymoon. But when a car bomb explodes, the honeymoon is cut short (a la High Noon), and Vargas investigates. This leads him to butt heads with the local Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), who claims all jurisdiction. It isn’t long before Vargas suspects Quinlan may be tampering with evidence, and he sets out in an elaborate audio recording scheme to catch Quinlan in his lies. Three interesting subplots arise — Susie’s vulnerability to a local gang while her husband is on the case; Quinlan’s attempts to see ex-lover and brothel owner Tanya (Marlene Dietrich); and Quinlan’s heart-breaking relationship with the deputy Menzies (Joseph Calleia), who idolizes him dearly.

The film boasts an extraordinarily deep cast and fine performances by all, though there is one glaring flaw — Heston’s casting as a Mexican. It’s the first thing anyone wants to talk about when talking Touch of Evil, how such a clearly chiseled American can even pretend to pass himself off as a Latino. You know it’s an infamously bad choice when Heston himself mocks the idea in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965), where a character tells Heston he’d have a hard time passing for a Mexican. (B) Other than that, Heston is a sturdy lead, but the very casting is too egregious to really get into the performance.

As for Heston’s on-screen wife, Touch of Evil finds Leigh toughing it out despite a broken left arm. For most of the film, her arm was in a cast, concealed from the camera, and then removed for her more revealing scenes. (C) Here, Leigh is at her bosomy best, showing why her figure (36C-21-36) was the stuff men’s dreams were made of. (D) Here she appears in a white lace waiting on a bed to be attacked in a motel room a full two years before Psycho (1960). No doubt Hitchcock was watching his fellow master Welles and getting ideas.

Speaking of Psycho, Welles also provides a precursor to Norman Bates in casting Emmy-winner Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke) as an awkward motel night manager. He’s just one in a deep supporting cast, including Zsa Zsa Gabor as a stripper; renowned Russian character actor Akim Tamiroff, who had appeared in Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955) and the unfinished Don Quixote, cast here as Quinlan’s criminal associate Uncle Joe Grandi; and even cameos by Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane) and Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge (All the King’s Men; voice of Satan in The Exorcist). Cotten makes a cameo as the coroner and McCambridge plays Leigh’s leather-clad abductor who says, “I wanna watch.”

But wait! There’s more. A lot more. And her name is Marlene Dietrich. The famed actress with the “bedroom eyes” had sort of disappeared since her hayday under Joseph von Sternberg in the ’30s. Then, a year before Touch of Evil, she was resurgent in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), after which Welles asked her to do a personal favor and give him one day’s worth of shooting. Executives at Universal did not even know Dietrich was in the film until they saw the rushes. And though she had agreed to work for minimum union wage, she wound up with a bigger pay day when the studio decided to give her on-screen credit. (C) Dietrich only appears in a handful of scenes, and yet strangely hers is the role I keep coming back to. Her role is vital, as she is our window into how much Quinlan has changed. When she first sees him, she doesn’t even recognize him. When she last sees him, she delivers the film’s famous final line: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

Which brings us to the greatest performance in the entire film — that of Welles himself. Just as Kane had foreshadowed Welles’ own rise and fall, Touch of Evil became the on-screen representation of the fat, bloated man Welles would become. Since his “boy genius” days on Kane, he had packed on a few pounds, and thought he would be the perfect one to play the hefty Quinlan, heightening the look with padding and a fake nose. (C) His body may be big, but his emotional complexities are just as deep. It seems the root of Quinlan’s problem is his inability to get over the murder of his wife, the fact that he never caught the killer and “ate his heart out trying to catch him.” Thus, Quinlan has devoted his entire life to never failing another case, locking up suspects at the expense of true justice. He doesn’t care if he’s entirely certain, he just wants them behind bars so he can feel better about his wife’s failed case. “That was the last killer that ever got out of my hands,” he says in a moment of wallowing drunken sadness. It is precisely this sadness in Quinlan that feels as if extension of Welles himself. Both were slick, talented figures early in life, who let their own inner demons create a rather porcine existence later in life. (E) Welles was some kind of man.

The story of his involvement with Touch of Evil says more about the man than anything else. He was first brought onto the project by Heston, who begged Universal to let Welles direct. Immediately, Welles went to work rewriting the already-completed script, including changing Vargas from a white D.A. to a Mexican narc, swapping Susie from Mexican to American, and relocating the setting from a small California town to a Mexican-American border town. (C). Call it karma, but as soon as shooting was completed, Welles own vision got thrown out the window. When Welles left for Mexico to continue working on Don Quixote (which he never finished), Universal began chopping the film to pieces and threw credits over the amazing opening shot, literally covering up Welles’ brilliance. In addition, the studio ordered certain scenes to be reshot, and brought in Harry Keller to shoot them. Refuisng to be filmed by anyone other than Welles, Heston delayed the reshoots for a day, but wound up reimbursing Universal the $8,000 for the delay. (C)

The meddling by hands other than Welles is the reason Touch of Evil debuted as the second half of a double bill with Keller’s The Female Animal (1958) as the main feature. Its status as a B-movie was born. When Welles learned Universal had recut his movie, he wrote a letter to with specific instructions on how he originally intended the film to look. For years, the memo was believed lost, but it was actually in the possession Heston, who turned it over for a careful re-edit for the film’s 1998 re-release. (C)

The biggest change was removing the credits from aforementioned opening shot — easily the most legendary opening shot in all of filmdom. Lasting three minutes and 12 seconds and shot in one continous long take, Welles starts tight on a man setting a time bomb, swings left to show a happy couple walking through an alleyway, and then swings back right to follow the bomber as he attaches his explosive to the couple’s car. When the couple enters the car, they turn on a jazzy tune on the car radio. As the car drives away behind a building, the camera pulls up on a crane and catches back up with the car, following it through the border town and its townspeople. It’s here that Vargas and Susie cross the street in front of the car, and the camera begins to follow them. As they walk, the bomb-carrying car continues to interact with them in a construction that shows the film’s characters are all tied together by a pre-ordained fate. Welles tried so many takes that the sequence seen in the film was actually the last chance to get it that night of shooting. You can see dawn breaking in the background. (C)

But let’s keep in mind, the much-lauded opening shot is just that — the opening shot. There is still an entire film of masterful direction to disect. Most memorable may be Welles’ use of “diagetic” sounds, or sounds coming from on-screen sources — car radios, jukeboxes, and most memorably, Henry Mancini’s haunting “Tanya’s Theme” echoing from a parlor pianola. Second most memorable may be the scene in which Quinlan crushes a pigeon egg in his hand. After picking up the egg, Quinlan successfully dodges Vargas’ questions — “Who is the boss, the cop or the law?” — until Vargas reveals incriminating evidence that could prove Quinlan’s tampering with evidence. At this point, Quinlan squeezes the egg, exhibiting his shock at having been found out. He then tosses his badge in the trash, storms out of the room and enters into a carefully-crafted deep focus shot, where he stands deep in the field, appearing very small in the background (very weak, very pathetic), while Vargas stands in the foreground, appearing much larger (more dominant or “in the right”).

Throughout the film, Welles uses simple shot composition to tell us volumes about Quinlan — a bulging wide-angle lens introducing him in all his grotesqueness; the mise-en-scene of him stuffing his face with a candy bar while a piece of trash blows in the wind behind him; the mise-en-scene of a bull head behind him, suggesting a certain bullheadedness; and a heated conversation between he and Vargas, where Quinlan appears in more than twice as many reaction shots as Vargas, a menacing figure that grows increasingly larger, filling up more of the frame. Finally, note how at the end of this converastion, Quinlan and Menzies exit the scene as mere shadows on a wall, while Vargas is shown in full figure — symbolizing Vargas’ purity and Quinlan’s shadiness.

The lattermost is just one of several “touches of noir” in the film, achieved by Welles and director of photography Russell Metty. Most expressive of the style is a bedroom murder scene, where Welles uses pulsating lights to show brief snippets of the murder amidst the horrific darkness. From this scene alone, one understands why Touch of Evil is rated the #6 noir film of all time by IMDB voters.

But keep in mind, this was the so-called “end” of the noir era, and by this point, the genre had been done to death. Leave it to Welles to come along and reinvent it, first and foremost by making his noir hero the bad guy (Quinlan). His domino effect of fate, or night journey, goes from needing Vargas out of the picture, to his pact with Grandi (where he breaks his own code, “I don’t drink,” and sells his soul in a high-angle shot), to the need to then kill Grandi, until finally Tanya says to him, “Your future is all used up.” At this point, Menzies is waiting outside to betray him, and thus Menzies becomes a rare male femme fatale. Indeed, the best part of Touch of Evil is this tragic relationship between Quinlan and Menzies, who learns his idol isn’t who he thought he was. The fact that both die at the hands of each other is only fitting, allowing for a powerful moment of blood droplets falling onto Quinlan’s hand. And making it all the more tragic is the revelation that Quinlan was right all along about the identity of the bomber, only he let his own insecurities get in the way.

This melancholic ending, and the fact that the villain is the main character, may prove troublesome for some viewers. Touch of Evil can be highly entertaining, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some viewers found it to be inaccessible on first go-round, simply because it’s so stylized, in a kinky sort of way. Some viewers may also be thrown by a datedness involving the scene where Susie is drugged and “raped.” Because this was the ’50s, Welles was forced to explain it away as the pills being only “knockout pills” and that no rape had occured. The story may be “safer” this way, but the film suffers from a story beat that is powerful in the moment, and absurd in the explanation.

Even with such a “safe” choice, the film was a big flop at the box office. Most considered it sleazy, B-movie trash, which is not surprising, considering it was essentially a New Wave film done in Hollywood. (F) But slowly, it gained an art following. It was screened at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, where judges (and then critics) Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut awarded it the top-prize. The film became a great influence in launching both their careers, and within a year, they went on to make their first films, À bout de souffle (1960) and Les quatre cents coups (1959), respectively. (C)

Today, the stylistic impact can be seen in everything from Batman (1989) to Basic Instinct (1992), and it was referenced heavily in films throughout the ’90s. (B) In the opening shot of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), one character hails Welles’ opening shot. In Ed Wood (1994), Johnny Depp approaches Orson Welles in a bar, who says, “Tell me about it. I’m supposed to do a thriller at Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!” In Get Shorty (1995), a character asks another to watch Touch of Evil with him, saying, “We can see Charlton Heston play a Mexican.” (C). And it continues to be referenced in the 21st century. It’s watched at a movie theater in an episode of Gilmore Girls, its movie poster appears in many an episode of TV’s House, and it plays on a TV set in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008). (B) I highly doubt clips of Zohan will play in any movie 50 years from now.

That’s the legacy of this film. If you’ve never seen it, there’s a good chance you’ve “seen it” and not even noticed. It is both hailed on mainstream lists, i.e. #100 IMDB, and gets serious love as an art masterpiece, ranked #15 on the most recent BFI Sight & Sound Critics Poll. It also ranked #31 in the Sight & Sound Directors Poll, where such reputable filmmakers as Bernardo Bertolucci and George Romero both placed it in their Top 10. As for Welles, he always considered it his favorite of all his movie titles, and it remains proof that even beyond Citizen Kane, he was always ready for a masterpiece.

Citations: 

CITE A: Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (2003),  (p.3).
CITE B: IMDB Movie Connections
CITE C: IMDB Trivia
CITE D: Celebrity Sleuth magazine
CITE E: “The Decline of Hearst and Welles” chapter on the Kane DVD
CITE F: Visions of Light AFI documentary

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