TOUCH OF EVIL

Touch of Evil – dir. Orson Welles – 1958 – Original Theatrical Trailer touch of evil

By: Kris Tronerud

When Charlton Heston, one of the last of Hollywood’s old-school megastars, passed away in April of this year, it became evident that, aside from his iconic performances in the likes of The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and El Cid, and the hugely popular sci fi potboilers of his later career (Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, Soylent Green), many remember him best today for an aggressive support of Gun Control which culminated in leadership of the NRA and that notorious, slightly over the top pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands’ moment. While many (including your writer) found these moments rather regressive and sad, Heston’s feelings in the matter were sincere, and based in a genuine love of his country and its Constitution. Today, it is seldom remembered that this love of country and its founding principles also led Heston, in the 60’s, to lend his time and public stature to help champion the Civil Rights movement in its most turbulent moments. And while Heston was adept at choosing roles which would almost certainly guarantee big paychecks and career advancement, his naturally contrarian nature and artistic curiosity also led him to periodically seek out smaller films and more challenging roles, as he did in 1968, in signing on to maverick director Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (much, at least during filming, to his ultimate consternation), and it was this unfulfilled artistic streak, and his growing concerns about the racial divide that was rapidly coming to boil in America, that led him, close on the heels of the enormous success of The Ten Commandments, to sign on to a relatively low-profile, racially charged film noir called Touch of Evil.

Heston was initially attracted, along with its subject matter, to the opportunity of working with Orson Welles, and was stunned to find out that Welles, whose Hollywood wunderkind director status had disintegrated in the wake of numerous commercial failures and uncompleted projects, and was now considered difficult, unreliable and un-bankable, was only slated to star, and not direct. In a 1998 interview with Dan Lybarger, Heston described what he termed “one of my major contributions to film”: “I bullied Universal into hiring Orson to direct it … I said, which stunned them, ‘Why don’t you have him direct? He’s a pretty good director, you know.’ They said, ‘Yeah, ummm, that would be interesting…” But, under Heston’s unrelenting pressure, hire Welles to direct they did, and, though it took 40 years for the world to see Touch of Evil in the form that Welles intended, the result, his last commercial Hollywood film, is now properly appreciated as one of his very best. When Touch of Evil finished shooting, and he had completed his first cut, the notoriously restless Welles, unaware that Universal considered his cut of Touch of Evil confusing, rushed off to Spain to film Don Quixote (which itself was only recently, finally, completed under the direction of its then unknown assistant director, Spanish cult film favourite Jess Franco). While it is generally assumed that Welles was the victim of crass and uncaring moguls, Heston has a more measured, if sad take: “All that preparation was something he loved doing and was very good at it. It is also, I fear, true that after he had finished shooting and editing his first director’s cut, his mind worked so quickly… he tended to lose interest… I think it’s what got Orson into his confrontation with the studio… (who called and) said, ‘Do you know how to get in touch with Orson?’ You can’t just walk off a picture… there are those who say Orson was fired. That’s not true; if they had fired him, they wouldn’t have called me.”

In any case, when he finally did see Universal’s cut, Welles was horrified, and fired off a now-famous 58 page letter, detailing what he felt were egregious and mistaken changes in the re-edited and partially re-shot Touch of Evil, begging them to restore the film according to his outline. To no avail, as Touch of Evil was released in its altered, truncated form to general head-scratching (Universal’s meddling had only rendered its already tangled plot more incomprehensible) and box-office failure; though the film did well (surprise!) in Europe, championed by New Wave critics like Truffaut, who still recognized flashes of Welles genius amid the wreckage. In 1998, however, master editor, sound designer and film restorationist (Apocalypse Now, Vertigo) Walter Murch finally did Touch of Evil justice, restoring the film according to Welles’ memo; eliminating the re-shot scenes, restoring Welles’ unique sound design, and redubbing certain lines (with Heston’s cooperation); delivering, finally, the truest possible version of this sprawling, moody and electrifying masterpiece.

The plot, while complicated to unravel in the film, is quite simple to describe: Crusading Mexican DA Mike Vargas (Heston) and his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) cross the border into the US to spend their honeymoon in “her country”. As they cross the border they witness the brutal car-bomb murder of an Anglo businessman and his mistress. Convinced that legendary local lawman Hank Quinlan is railroading the Mexican lover of the murder victim’s daughter, and concerned with protecting his country’s reputation, Vargas obsessively tries to discover the truth; while increasingly oblivious to the danger gathering around Susie as Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) whose brother Vargas is about to send to jail, uses her to frighten, then discredit Vargas. With the restoration of Touch of Evil, much attention has been paid to the pride of that restoration, the astonishing 3 minute 20 second single traveling boom shot which opens the film. Welles’ overlapping streams of bar and dive music of various styles and ethnicities once again stalk Leigh and Heston as they walk the streets of Evil’s border town no-man’s land (this sound collage had been replaced by Henry Mancini’s brilliant but, in this scene, inappropriate, score) and the credits which once obscured this masterful shot are now, thankfully, at the film’s end, revealing the full power of one of the screen’s great visual accomplishments. The shot is so perfectly realized that, if one is not paying attention, it seems to be composed of several cuts; as Heston says, “There’s no shot like it in the movies”. It would be a great mistake to assume, however, that Touch of Evil’s appeal is limited to bravura technical prowess, as it is, in fact, a powerful and emotionally gripping expression of Welles’ increasingly troubled view of humanity, and of himself.

He was some kind of Man… anyway, what does it matter what you say about people?
— Marlene Dieitrich describing ‘Quinlan’ in Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil is a tightly wound, often garish whirlpool of sound, violent action and visual brilliance that carries us, helplessly fascinated, through Welles’ nightmare of festering corruption and seedy decadence. The film is imbued with a palpable aura of threat and sexual danger, amped up by Mancini’s angry, growling jazz score (his first credited score, Mancini would achieve international acclaim later that same year with his classic music for Peter Gunn) and by Welles’ constant visual mastery. Heston’s obsession and pride lead him to be oblivious to the peril in which he is placing Leigh, and to the film’s most frightening passages which, in contrast to the clammy darkness of the rest of the film, take place in broad daylight, as Leigh is deposited alone at what surely is the movies’ most deserted motel; surrounded by vast and vaguely terrifying expanses of sunlit, cloudfilled nothingness, and creating a dreamlike, Hitchcockian evocation of the primal fears of abandonment and helplessness. In the second assault on Leigh, the dialogue and brutal visuals suggest a rape which is later explained away by unconvincing (and, one suspects, studio inserted) expository dialogue (though the contemporary trailer exploits this suggestion to the hilt). As it progresses, however, an implacable mood of sadness and world-weary fatalism begin to suffuse the picture, as the character of Quinlan takes center stage in a parable of missed opportunity and self-delusion. Though Welles hoped that Touch of Evil would rehabilitate his crumbling reputation in Hollywood, he was almost certainly now coming to grips with the ways in which his own flaws of character had already pulled him from the dizzying heights at which he had exploded onto the cinema stage with Citizen Kane; and his Hank Quinlan is a towering and tragic embodiment of once high promise and idealism brought low by arrogance, ambition and lack of discipline. Welles’ performance is, as it often was, almost beyond criticism: stylized, dense, and hypnotic, but those of the actors around him form an almost Shakespearean web of love and betrayal, as Quinlan’s world quickly unravels. A worn, but still beautiful Marlene Deitrich is perfect as the whorehouse madam who once loved the young and idealistic Quinlan, and their brief but poignant scenes together set the tone for the film’s growing aura of loss and regret. Akim Tamiroff provides the comic relief of the piece, as his Grandi keeps popping up in the action, bouncing frenetically through the story at once aggressively violent and pathetically funny. Janet Leigh, whose career thus far had consisted mostly of snow–pure (if well-acted) heroines, delivers an earthy, warmly aggressive sensuality that one suspects was closer to her true persona; and Heston, though not particularly convincing as a Mexican, is powerful and believable as the prideful Vargas. But the finest performance in the film belongs, improbably, to veteran character thesp Joseph Calleia, who, in a career-crowning performance, plays Sergeant Menzies, the lifelong friend, admirer and protégé of Quinlan, who, suddenly unable to suppress his growing understanding of Quinlan’s fall from grace, brings about his downfall. The shot of Calleia’s face, framed in the police station window, silent and stricken with this realization, is one of the great wordless shots in film. Welles seems to suggest that everyone (even Vargas, who starts to mimic Quinlan’s obsession and tactics) is subject to corruption; and Deitrich’s slow walk away from the camera in long shot at the end of Touch of Evil recalls the melancholy and loss of that other masterwork of doomed corruption, also starring Welles, The Third Man.

Policeman have a difficult, a very hard job. But it’s the essence of our society that a policeman’s job should be hard.
— Orson Welles on the Isaac Woodward police beating case

Though it is certainly, first and foremost, one of the last great classic noirs, Touch of Evil is can also be read as one of the boldest treatments, up to that time, of raw racism in popular film. Welles, unlike Heston, whose early involvement in civil rights later devolved into an often simplistic conservatism, had a lifelong involvement in liberal causes and concerns, and lent his name and opinion to many celebrated cases, including the Sleepy Lagoon Murder, in which young Chicanos were arrested and beaten after a hit and run accident, (and which formed part of the plot of LA Confidential), and the vicious beating and blinding of Black Naval Veteran Isaac Woodward by police in South Carolina. Add to this the fact that Welles directed the seminal Mercury Theater Broadway Production of Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, and wrote, directed and narrated the controversial radio play “His Honor the Mayor”, about a Mexican politician’s fight against the racist ‘White Crusaders’, drawing the attentions of J. Edgar Hoover, it is no surprise that Touch of Evil is a groundbreaking, courageous and still timely condemnation of institutionalized prejudice, whose passionate argument against the violation of sacred principle in the name of ‘good’ is that much more relevant today. It is however, as a heartbreaking portrait of lost promise and the danger of personal corruption, (set in a roiling, throatgrabbing and beautifully realized melodrama) that Touch of Evil endures, and, thanks to the good offices of Walter Murch and his intrepid band of technicians, can finally be appreciated as never before.

Andrea O Written by: