Touch Of Evil (1958)
Just like the movie, we’ve gotta start with that shot. Over the past thirty years we’ve become acutely accustomed to the dexterous long take, heck I’d even assert that the effect is overdone and is something of a clichéd instrument in the directors contemporary box of tricks. Back when camera housing and magazines needed big burly grips to hurl them around the set the thought of programming penetrating camera moves was rarely attempted, although Murnau is noteworthy for his oblique approach to get us into the minds of his protagonists. When equipment become more lightweight and flexible in the 1940’s production incorporated locations rather than just tightly controlled sets, and from the 1950’s a mixture of both has been deployed in order to jigsaw a movie, although the pendulum has swung back to the green screen artificiality of recent blockbuster bores. Ever the great innovator Welles delivered one of the great early tracking shots, understanding that technique and craft reinforces theme and atmosphere, as a bustling and energetic Mexican border incorporates both a physical location ambiance with a technically ambitious opening gambit – and this is crucial. There has to be a story and character purpose for such flagrant grasps for attention, some subliminal force which demands such manipulation of spatial dimensions within a 2D frame, rather than merely cutting up a sequence to build moments and motive through the intrinsic form of film grammar itself. The celebrated Copacabana sequence for example seduces us just as it incorporates Karen’s bewildered state of mind, ushered us both into this woozy world of prestige and pampering, quite literally a back door into the gangsters world where they cut corners to achieve their exalted position – legal corners, moral corners, mortal corners. Sometimes the tracking shot is deployed for sheer kinetics, for sheer pulse pounding pyrotechnics as seen in The Protector or maybe Oldboy, but Welles being Welles he manages to garrote both intentions, setting the restless and anxious tone and pace of the picture while also literally having his plot explode in the first few minutes;
As you may have guessed we’re discussing Touch Of Evil, Orson Welles 1958’s simmering film noir classic, one of his final triumphs in a career scattered with mutilated masterpieces and thwarted visions. The centenary of his birth is being celebrated by the BFI with a season entitled The Great Disruptor, an apt description for one of the innovative geniuses whose touch graced the silver screen in the 20th century, an immortal presence both in front and behind the camera. I’ve been planning to see this for many years having taken down Kane,The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai in the past, leaving jut the The Trial for another day. Yes, I know I should devote some attention to his Shakespeare adaptions and maybe one day I will, but it’s really only Kafka’s nightmare which still tickles my celluloid bones.
It is the opening tick-tock mechanism, furtively scurried into the vehicle and transported across the US / Mexican border that literally detonates the movie, driving as it does the subsequent investigation into the crime as legal crusader Miguel Vargis (Charlton Heston) and his spritely new wife Susie (Janet Leigh) are plunged into a morass of praetorian plotting and mutinous murder. Welles dominates the screen as the bloated Police Captain Hank Quinlan, a precursor to every screen Bad Lieutenant from Keitel to Cage, squatting like a venerable spider at the schemes corrupt core. It’s been cited as a key noir of the 1950’s and on the surface the moniker seems apt – it orbits an urban murder investigation, there are street hoods, moody lighting, violence and social intrigue – but with Welles the veils of deception and subterfuge are the key, and I read it as less a direct crime story than a distorted shadow-play on power and moral authority.
There are no less than three versions of the film floating around due to the usual butchering that Welles suffered after his imperious debut, and naturally the BFI have opted to screen the late 1990’s restoration as part of this comprehensive retrospective. Originally the film suffered seventeen minutes of cuts due to its perceived uncommercial dimensions by the Universal dolts, adding insult to injury they then released a preview version they unearthed in the vaults in 1976, billing it as the ‘restored and original’ version which is most certainly was not. After the studio originally seized his original master print Welles tearfully issued a 58 page memo urging what elements must be included in the picture, a blueprint that the great editor Walter Murch used as his bible for the post autopsy reconstruction of both image and sound. I’m not enough of an expert to tell you what was omitted and regenerated, but I am certain that this is now the canonical version of the film, given that it respects the man’s original, pre-mutilated vision strengthened by guidance from his very own hand, and gatekeepers such as Bogdanovich have anointed it with their blessing. Now if anyone can finally exhume that missing print of Ambersons you’d be doing us all a legendary favour…..
From the opening refrain of Henry Mancini’s jagged, jazzy score the film has a restless, urgent energy, and even after that spectacular opening gambit the cantering pace is maintained throughout. What I think I find most fascinating about Welles pictures is that it is simply impossible to be bored by them as there is always something interesting happening in every single scene, there is always a fascinating element or decision to detect, whether it’s the lighting or camera movement, the composition or the performances, or the framing and focus planes selected to tell his indiscriminate and indomitable version of his story. Even nominally tedious exposition sequences where two characters have to impart story information are played along a new angle, with new structures of staging, with the friction of innovation ricocheting across scenes and sequences in an almost alarmingly abundant fashion. In Touch Of Evil Welles displays a fondness for grotesques, both physically and spiritually, lurking in the limbo border town that signals transition from one state to another. The duality’s that echo throughout the film – corrupt / incorruptible, love / loss, nostalgia / regret is quite remarkable and marks Welles truly as a ceaselessly inquisitive filmmaker, constantly experimenting with and exploding the boundaries of the form. Crucially for me it also taps into the intrinsic beauty in movies versus other visual forms, the use of deep focus staging is just aesthetically wonderful for the eye to behold, they rarely attempt such planar positioning even on TV these days and as a cinephile you can simply let go and let the images and inspiration overwhelm you.
Although Orson was playing a rather disgusting slug of a man its worth noting that Touch Of Evil was moulded before his own weight and girth ballooned later in his life, where he became the velvet voiced interrogator of sherry adverts, peas and Transformers movies. The classic story of the production is that Welles, long exiled from the Hollywood inner circle was nevertheless invited to a nearby studio hosted party. Being in such a rush for a drink after a long days shooting that he didn’t bother to ditch the Quinlan make-up or padding he arrives at the soiree, saturated with Tinseltown types, only to be greeted with false air-kisses and proclamations from the assembled patronage that ‘Oh Orson, its so lovely to see you – you look fabulous‘. For Hollywood connoisseurs it’s also fun to see who cameos in the movie to give their old friend some star encrusted support, from Joseph Cotton’s bespectacled bureaucrat to Mercedes McCambridge’s flick-knife sporting lesbian, but the film is best known for one of the immortal Marlene Dietrich’s finest final roles. In just two scenes she steals the entire picture as the swarthy fortune teller cum brothel madam with a performance of smouldering eyes and coiled charisma, as Quinlan’s old flame Tanya. Deviating from the noir plotting once the crime has been solved and the puppet master unmasked the film reaches for a wider pathos with Dietrich’s delicious pay-off line – ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’ Exit stage left, her eyes alone suggesting a lifetime of regret and melancholic mystery, a poisoned valentine and perhaps the final apropos word on Welles turbulent relationship with the studios;