Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Touch of Evil (Universal-International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

During the two-hour stand-down Charles and I adjourned to his place and I ran him a tape of the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil — which he liked so much, despite its Universal-International parentage, that he asked me if it had actually been made by Paramount and simply acquired by Universal ex post facto, like Psycho two years later (which it strongly anticipates in the presence of Janet Leigh and her torment at the hands of a strange night clerk — Dennis Weaver instead of Anthony Perkins this time — in an impossibly remote motel whose business plummeted when the interstate highway was built somewhere else).

It’s a movie I also found myself liking better than I had in the 1970’s, partly because time has caught up with it — certainly the issues of racism, narcotics, moral corruption, a policeman’s role in a democracy and the tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border are, if anything, even more “live” today than they were in 1958! Welles’ direction is marvelous, even though he builds suspense less through editing than from oblique camera angles (not many directors went as extremely into deep-focus as he did; the shots of two people’s heads, of dramatically different on-screen size but both still in focus, were a Welles trademark from Citizen Kane on but are deployed especially effectively here), and the plot, though complex, is actually surprisingly easy to follow if one concentrates. (The reputation this film has for being confusing is not altogether unearned, but if you give the story your full attention it isn’t hard figuring out who’s doing what to whom, and why; it’s certainly better constructed than, say, The Big Sleep — novel or movie.) Touch of Evil was a flop when it was released — partly because Universal-International gave it almost no promotion, partly because audiences 40 years ago weren’t as able to handle films with multiple plot-lines and quick cuts from one storyline to another as they are today (in fact, today the film emerges as an early exercise in cinematic post-modernism — and one can readily see what about Welles’ directorial style that has influenced the two generations of directors since).

Touch of Evil is a film that works on a surprising number of levels: as a morality play, as a study in corruption, as realistic (or surrealistic) drama and as film noir. Basically, it’s the story of the clash in values between Mexican narcotics official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston, who’s actually surprisingly credible visually as a Mexican — his performance falls short of credibility only in his refusal to attempt even the hint of a Spanish accent; granted he’s supposed to be playing an upper-class Mexican who speaks English well, but it’s still hard to believe he speaks it that well) and Welles as San Diego police officer Hank Quinlan, who has made it a habit of planting evidence in order to see that criminals get convicted regardless of due process.

Like the judge in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Niggerboys, or Ten Little Indians, or whatever the p.c. title for it currently is), Quinlan is concerned about nailing people his instinct (symbolized by his “game leg”) tells him are guilty but against whom there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict unless he creates some. This aspect of Touch of Evil naturally involves the same themes as Detective Story and Dirty Harry, and whereas Wyler’s film unequivocally condemned the cop who pushed past the lines of due process and Siegel’s film unequivocally (at least until the final scene) made him a hero, Welles’ film is typically more complicated. On the whole, we sympathize with Vargas’ moral position (while at the same time we hate him for being so cavalier about the safety of his Anglo wife, the Janet Leigh role), but at the same time we see him sink to some pretty scummy levels himself in his eagerness to frame Quinlan, including planting a wire on Quinlan’s long-time partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) to get the evidence he needs to prove that Quinlan shot the Mexican drug-dealer Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and tried to frame Mrs. Vargas for the crime.

Not that this plot line is the only thing going on in Touch of Evil. The film opens with the famous sequence in which a wealthy industrialist (one can hardly imagine an Orson Welles film without a wealthy industrialist somewhere in the dramatis personae) and his stripper girlfriend are blown up by a bomb planted in their car — which not only makes for an impressive opening sequence (which would have been even more impressive had Welles won his argument with the studio that the credits should have been placed at the end of the film, as is the standard practice today, instead of at the beginning, where they distract from the long-take flow of the scene) but also sets up one hell of a jurisdictional snarl, because the bomb was planted on the Mexican side of the border but exploded on the U.S. side.

Vargas (who was an Anglo in the original source novel, Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil — in the novel he was an American D.A. and his wife was Mexican — and, not surprisingly, Heston was set for the role before Welles took over the writing and direction and decided to reverse the racial backgrounds of Mr. and Mrs. Vargas) is being threatened by Grandi because, before the film begins, he arrested Grandi’s brother on drug charges (a Latin American drug ring run by a family — in that, too, Welles’ film anticipated present-day reality!), and Grandi (the one we see on screen) wants to intimidate Vargas into dropping the case by threatening (and eventually raping) Vargas’ wife (not that he commits the rape himself — he has Mrs. Vargas cornered in the motel by his nephews and a bunch of other things, one of whom — the one who pleads to be able to stay and watch — is Mercedes McCambridge in drag; McCambridge had just been blacklisted and Welles, flaming liberal that he was, wanted to give her work, and it’s hard to imagine any better way of “covering” her presence in the film than by casting her cross-gender!). Both the Vargases make that task almost absurdly easy — he by being incredibly callous towards her safety (leaving her alone at the drop of someone else’s police badge and holing her up in the scummiest hotels he can find — though maybe the point was that these cheap dives were all an honest Mexican narcotics cop could afford!) and she by being a typical blonde bimbo.

When I first saw Touch of Evil in the 1970’s I found it almost impossibly complicated — I liked the beginning and the ending (the final confrontation between Vargas, Quinlan and Menzies — who ultimately shoots Quinlan, who years before had saved Menzies’ life, to keep Quinlan from killing Vargas) but found most of what went between unfollowable. This time around I found some parts of the film as silly as they seemed before — though Joseph Cotten is marvelous in a one-scene cameo as a vice cop (the bushy white moustache and matching white frizzled hair make him almost unrecognizable physically, but the famous voice is unmistakable), Marlene Dietrich’s role as a cantina owner who hosts Quinlan for chili and solace is just plain silly (and her curtain line, “What does it matter what you say about a man?,” is pure camp, though it was taken seriously enough that it was quoted in virtually every obituary when Welles finally did die in real life) and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s part as the head of a strip joint is even sillier.

But, once you get used to multiple plot lines and a suspense film that builds most of its tension through long, uninterrupted takes instead of intercutting (though Welles actually wanted more of the sequences intercut than they are in the final cut), Touch of Evil is surprisingly entertaining. Welles himself turns in a marvelous performance as a man whose physical corpulence and general air of dishevelment become superb metaphors for his ethical and psychological deterioration — though he was already fat, he added 70 pounds of body padding to make himself not just large, but grotesquely obese (he would pad himself again to play Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight seven years later); and though his use of a walking-stick (which figures prominently in the plot) is explained in the film by his having stopped a bullet with his leg years before, but one subliminally gets the impression that he needs the cane just to hold himself up. (Welles actually fell in the first week of shooting and really needed the cane for the rest of the film.)

The location — Venice Beach, California — works superbly as a site for decay and corruption, though the oil wells look somewhat incongruous for what’s supposed to be the San Diego/Tijuana border and it’s frequently impossible to tell just by looking whether we’re supposed to be in the U.S. or Mexico. (The only visible difference is that in the scenes set on the U.S. side, the bilingual signs on the buildings have the English on top, where in the scenes set in Mexico the Spanish is on top.) And even though it’s a sign of a more naive time that Welles’ dialogue had to contain laborious explanations of what a “bug” actually was, the final scene in which Vargas is maintaining electronic surveillance of Quinlan (and has to follow him at close range because of the limited range of the transmitter he’s wired Menzies with) is powerful and still timely. — 11/12/97

•••••

The film Charles and I watched last night was Touch of Evil, the 1998 re-edit that, in a truly Orwellian perversion of language, has been hyped by Universal as the “director’s cut” of the film even though Orson Welles had been dead for 13 years when this edit was made. The justification for that was that it was supposedly based on a 58-page memo Welles gave to Universal on how he wanted the film to be edited that had, according to the hype, been unknown until Charlton Heston, the film’s star, discovered it among his papers in 1995. This doesn’t explain how Frank Brady, in a Welles biography published in 1989, could not only have read the memo but noted that about half of its suggestions had already been followed in the two versions of the film that existed previously, the 90-minute 1958 release print that is the only version entirely directed by Orson Welles and the 105-minute alternative version that was rediscovered in the Universal vaults and issued in 1975. (This was the version I saw first, in a hole-in-the-wall theatre in the East Bay from a 16 mm print; later I saw the 90-minute version on TV and actually found it more coherent and better entertainment.)

The film began life as just another Universal policier, based on a paperback thriller by Whit Masterson called Badge of Evil (the title Welles actually wanted to retain for the film) and adapted into a screenplay by Paul Monash, and Charlton Heston was signed for the lead — an Anglo-American D.A. who clashes with a corrupt cop in a border town. Universal signed Orson Welles to play the corrupt cop even before they got Heston, and when they offered Heston the project he asked, “Who’s directing?” The Universal execs told Heston they didn’t have a director signed yet but Welles was already attached to the project as an actor. “Why don’t you let Orson direct it?” Heston said — later recalling in his journal that the guys from Universal reacted to that suggestion as if he’d said, “Why don’t you let my mother direct it?” Welles never read Masterson’s novel but wrote his own screenplay from the Monash script, in the process deciding that instead of playing a U.S. D.A. married to a Mexican woman, Heston would play a Mexican narcotics cop, Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas, and his wife would be the Anglo one and be played by Janet Leigh. (Leigh thereby became one of three actors — the others being Joseph Cotten and Anthony Perkins — who played leads for both Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.)

Welles got carte blanche to shoot the film his way when Albert Zugsmith, who’d previously handled Douglas Sirk on Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, agreed to produce, and as usual with a Welles project that had solid financial backing and a major-studio infrastructure, the actual shooting proceeded relatively smoothly but the film ran into trouble with the editing. Welles went behind schedule in post-production and the “suits” insisted on seeing a cut version as it stood — and Universal editor Ernest Nims worked on it for five weeks while Welles pulled one of his celebrated disappearing acts. Meanwhile, the execs decided the film was totally incoherent and needed additional scenes, and with the studio already disillusioned with Welles they assigned another director, Universal contractee Harry Keller, to shoot about 15 minutes of additional footage — which was accordingly shot, edited into the film and then, amazingly, not used in the release version; instead they just put out the 90-minute cut without Keller’s additions.

What made it even more bizarre was that in 1961, when Peter Bogdanovich hosted a question-and-answer session with Welles at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Welles identified some of Keller’s footage as his own and attacked the studio for removing it (though it’s possible, as Brady suggested in his book, that Welles had directed similar scenes that hadn’t been included in the first cut). Anyway, the 58-page memo was written by Welles after he saw the cut with the Keller-directed insertions — and, according to Brady, about half his suggestions were followed in the version ultimately released in 1975. One could actually make the case that each re-edit of the film, far from getting closer to Orson Welles’ “intentions” (and I daresay not even Welles himself was fully conscious of what his “intentions” were!), has actually moved farther and farther from what he had in mind when he was actually shooting the film.

Be that as it may, the 1998 re-edit of the 1975 version (already re-edited and with additional scenes shot by another director) of the 1958 original cut of Touch of Evil remains pretty much the same frustrating movie it always was: either a bad movie with flashes of brilliance or a great movie flawed by trivial subject matter. There’s one decided improvement in this edition — the famous tour de force tracking shot at the beginning, in which the fabulously wealthy contractor Linnekar and his stripper girlfriend de jour are blown up by a bomb planted in the trunk of their car is finally visible without the distraction of having the film’s credits superimposed over it (which Zugsmith insisted on over Welles’ objections) — and one decided drawback: the early scene in which Mrs. Vargas is rather stupidly lured to a cheap hotel and forced to confront “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), brother of the cartel boss Vargas is scheduled to testify against at a trial in Mexico City, is kept all in one shot instead of intercut with scenes involving Vargas. For all the hype about this being a re-edited version, some of the jump cuts are awfully sloppy and it’s hard to imagine a director so picky with his editors as Welles was letting them get away with some of the jarring non-transitions in this version of the film.

What’s frustrating about Touch of Evil is that it’s a film with a good deal more psychological, political and ideological weight than your standard police thriller — most especially the confrontation between Hank Quinlan (Welles) and Vargas over whether the ends justify the means and it’s morally O.K. to get convictions against genuinely guilty people even when you have to plant evidence and frame them to do it (a dilemma that recurred in real life when Mark Fuhrman’s antics were exposed during the O. J. Simpson trial!) and the marvelous ending, in which Vargas, angry with Quinlan for having framed his wife on drugs and murder (the victim was Grandi, whom Quinlan shot with Vargas’s gun), gets Quinlan’s long-time (and long-suffering) partner, Menzies (Joseph Calleia in an understated performance that’s quite welcome in a film in which too many of the actors seem to be trying to duplicate their director’s histrionics in their own performances!) to wear a wire (it’s indicative of how unusual this was that the script has to explain to us what this is!) in order to get the goods on Quinlan and prove that his bending the law has turned into outright breaking it.

The problem with Touch of Evil is not only how Welles was bending — and at times breaking — narrative coherence and common sense in the story (he’d done that similarly a decade earlier in The Lady from Shanghai, which also was largely set in Mexico but was a far better constructed film and had a truly great performance by Rita Hayworth in the lead) but also the vast gap between the depth and richness of the main intrigue — the clash between corrupt Quinlan and honest but ineffective Vargas over the ethics of law enforcement (still a live issue today, given how much applause Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin got for the line in her acceptance speech, “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and [Barack Obama]’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights”), leading to Vargas’s line, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state” (those who find it ironic to hear future National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston deliver that line should be reminded that at the time Heston made this film he was still a liberal Democrat; like Ronald Reagan, he moved Right over time) — and the sleazy business with Janet Leigh, whose existence in this film seems to be more as an object of titillation for the audience, since she’s successively cruised by one of Grandi’s young, greasy nephews (the quasi-racist epithet is appropriate for how the character is played in the film), Grandi himself, the motel manager (Dennis Weaver in a performance and situation clearly anticipating that between Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho) who runs the place where he’s stashed, then an entire gang of J.D.’s in Grandi’s employ (including Mercedes McCambridge in drag) who gang-rape her and plant reefers (the word is actually used on the soundtrack) around her to bolster Quinlan’s cover story that both Mr. and Mrs. Vargas are junkies and he’s sold out to the cartel to insure that both of them get drug supplies.

One problem with Touch of Evil is that it’s one of those God-awful plots that’s dependent on the “good” guys being totally stupid ninnies; accepting Charlton Heston as a Mexican is less of a problem than accepting him as such an idiot that he keeps putting his wife in harm’s way even though he would surely know that the cartel he’s about to testify against would try to intimidate him into silence by targeting her. For all the visual virtuosics, there’s a hard core of silliness about this movie — epitomized by Marlene Dietrich’s inexplicable casting as Tanya (a name the other actors find impossible to pronounce; it keeps coming out “Tana” or “Tanner”), owner of a saloon where Quinlan used to drink (he got on the wagon in the backstory but falls off it spectacularly during the film) with a player piano that cranks out two songs over and over again, one a sappily sentimental waltz Welles used as the recurring theme of the film.

But the main problem is that, after his brilliant beginning in films with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles seems to have decided that the reason his two masterpieces had flopped was the high-falutin’ nature of their subject matter, so he attempted to re-invent himself in a more “commercial” vein by making thrillers: Journey Into Fear, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai (easily his best work in the genre), Confidential Report and this, broken only by the Shakespearean productions Macbeth and Othello (and even there he selected two works from the Shakespeare canon that anticipate film noir: a man murders his way to a position of power and authority and then loses it again; a man is enticed by his best friend to suspect his wife of adultery and ends up killing her) and — if my argument that it should “really” be considered a Welles film is true — the fascinating 1949 Black Magic, a much more coherent and entertaining film than Touch of Evil (and, intriguingly, also featuring Welles as a corrupt opportunist who falls by over-reaching).

I think Dwight Macdonald might have had a point that Welles did his best work when the story he selected pushed him towards realism — either the thinly veiled real life of William Randolph Hearst in Kane (plus the precision of veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in constructing the script; I think Pauline Kael went overboard in suggesting that the script for Kane was entirely Mankiewicz’s work, but he was certainly responsible for the underlying concept and its basic construction) or the realistic fiction of Booth Tarkington in Ambersons — and did less interesting work when a weak story gave him room to indulge his most baroque stylistic obsessions at the expense of narrative coherence. The odd thing about Touch of Evil is that many of its good and bad points anticipate the films (and the social issues!) of today; certainly a movie about a family-run Mexican drug cartel terrorizing the police on both sides of a border town is awfully au courant, and the very structural shakiness of Touch of Evil that gave the Universal executives conniption fits way back when makes it seem modern in an era in which all too many young directors indulge in an orgy of odd angles and quick cuts on the theory that their MTV-raised audiences not only don’t expect but don’t want narrative coherence.

But I can’t help thinking that a director more sympathetic to the noir universe — like Fritz Lang, maybe? — could have done a much better job dramatizing the central story of Touch of Evil than Welles did, and for all Welles’ attempt to create a couple of antagonistic characters expressing a moral dilemma about law and authority, Hank Quinlan — with his obscene obesity (Welles really wasn’t that fat; he wore heavy body padding here and later as Falstaff in his last Shakespearean film, Chimes at Midnight, as if he’d decided that once he could no longer slim down to romantic-lead size he’d go the opposite way and make himself not just fat but grotesque and monstrous in size), his gravelly voice and his overbearing manner — is hardly as eloquent a spokesperson for police-state tactics as either Walter Huston in The Beast of the City before him or Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry afterwards, and Charlton Heston is so annoyingly prissy (apparently when he put that dark makeup on a lot of his machismo came off!) you can’t really root for him either. Though I like The Trial a lot better than Macdonald did (admittedly it’s a film that should only be seen if you have read the book, but I don’t hold that against it), I think he was right about Touch of Evil when he invidiously compared it to the 1941 Maltese Falcon and added, “If all the cards are wild, you can’t play poker.” — 9/9/08