Friday, August 14, 2009

Touch of Evil

The most unfortunate aspect of any discussion of Orson Welles, the first great enfant terrible of cinema, is the tendency to highlight Welles' martyrdom over what he still accomplished in his turbulent career. Anyone who has ever talked about Welles is guilty of it at some point, myself included, but when I sit down with butchered classics The Magnificent Andersons or The Lady From Shanghai, I see them for brilliant pictures, tampering or no.

Still, there's a euphoric satisfaction in Touch of Evil. Welles' final Hollywood picture -- itself following an exile (some of it self-imposed) from American financing since The Lady From Shanghai -- suffered the same studio treatment that had become the depressing norm for the auteur and was re-cut and re-shot by Harry Keller (whose footage is seen, with variable length, in all cuts of the film) without the director's involvement. It flopped upon release, and eventually became the unofficial marker for the end of the Golden Age of Film Noir, both for its financial failure and its eventual acceptance as a marred masterpiece. For once, though, the story of Welles' misunderstood genius comes with a happy ending: the excised footage survived, and a 58-page memo Welles wrote to Universal after seeing their first re-edit of the film contained detailed notes for his vision of the film. Producer Rick Schmidlin, editor and audio engineer Walter Murch (the same man behind Apocalypse Now's sound) and Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of America's finest film critics, reconstructed as closely as possible to Welles' notes. Not a director's cut -- that could never exist, as Welles never got the chance to re-edit it himself -- this restoration of Touch of Evil is nevertheless triumph for Welles fans, a chance to see one of his butchered products the way it was meant to be seen, or at least as close as possible to it.

What Welles made, in the choppy theatrical edit or this proper Restored Version, is one of the most daring and unconventional films of the '50s. At the time, Universal chiefly produced commercially viable monster and sci-fi B-movies, with the only truly lasting cinema mainly belonging to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk; even then, Sirk's films were so successful because nobody understood their satiric construction until many years later. No wonder they scratched their heads and took the reins back when Welles submitted this grotesque, pitch-black genre picture for consideration and approval.

Welles reportedly got the directing job when Charlton Heston was approached for the role; when Heston heard that Orson was attached to act, he assumed that Welles would direct as well, and eventually the studio convinced Welles to shoot it to make their star happy. Welles agreed, and promptly re-wrote the script. Shot shortly after the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, a decision which many policemen refused to enforce, Touch of Evil boils with ethnic tension and Welles' commentary on the role of the police. Welles reversed the races of the narcotics cop and his wife from the book version, making the cop into a Mexican and his wife a WASP-ish pixie from Philly, and in doing so gives Vargas' conflict with corrupt American cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) a darker edge. Even in the vastly diluted studio version, the film clearly touches upon such issues of race and prejudice, subverting and satirizing stereotypes and genre conventions at every turn.

The opening shot of the film is justly famous: a three-and-a-half-minute tracking shot follows a bomb as an unseen terrorist arms it and plants it in a car, which drives through a border town and into America. Coincidentally walking alongside it is Vargas (Heston) and his new wife Susie (Janet Leigh), exchanging the usual post-nuptials lovey-doveyness. Suddenly the shot cuts as the car explodes, and the film launches into a rapid montage. That ability to jump between classic formalism and low-budget innovation (much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras that give it a realistic feel that contrasts sharply with the stylized noir-ish tone of the dialogue and art design) defines the dichotomy of Touch of Evil and Welles' sly mindset that informs it: it's a self-contained, tongue-in-cheek lesson on noir, but it is also something that can apply the narrative complexity of film noir to character and direction.

Quinlan's arrival on the scene of the crime carries a sinister undertone even in these first five minutes. Welles advanced film make-up several leagues with Citizen Kane, and his work for Quinlan is some sort of masterpiece in itself: already overweight, Welles used padding to swell his stomach even more, and placed some barely perceptible putty on his face to make him more bullish. The second he steps out of his squad car, you know you're dealing with a corrupt, racist cop; for the first 20 minutes or so, nearly everything he says is abhorrent in some way. Yet Welles bleeds charisma through the whale carcass that is his misshapen lump of a body, and you can understand why the men under him view him as an idol.

Interestingly, Welles lets us know who the villain is in this thriller before we even reach the end of the first half; Vargas accompanies Quinlan in his investigation of the explosion and discovers the cop planting evidence to support his "hunch"; that the suspect is a poor Mexican boy engaged in an interracial tryst with the daughter of the man who died only adds further intrigue. Quinlan knows he has the rest of the force in his thrall, and he encourages the Mexican Vargas to defend the young boy with whatever accusations he can muster. "I'm sure they'll take your natural prejudice into account," he says with a serpentine smile.

The face-off between Quinlan and Vargas is full of thrilling twists and turns, but by playing its cards so soon, Welles mounts a bold gambit, one that pays off superbly thanks to the rich world he creates. With the general mystery of the film revealed before the first half, Welles is free to create suspense not so much from narrative but from the nightmarish, fantastical quality of the border towns. (This setting alone is a masterstroke: the border serves as an obvious metaphor for the moral ground the characters tread and re-tread. Welles does not stop with such a facile connection, however; these characters move between the towns so often and both are so similar to one another that one loses the ability to discern where a character is at any given moment. It's noir as visual poetry.)

A typical racial thriller made in contemporary cinema would likely set up its two leads as clearly good and evil, with a few contrived explanations for their flaws, and engage in an examination of racism that preyed on ethnic stereotypes without really analyzing them. Welles does not fall into the trap, though; I don't know that I've ever seen what many would dismiss as a "B-movie" contain such a rich tapestry of characters. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), Quinlan's partner and closest friend, idolizes his buddy. When he drives Susie to her motel, he regales her with the story of Quinlan's game leg (what serves as his tingling "intuition"): Hank took the bullet for Pete, only cementing Pete's hero worship. Calleia, a veteran character actor of over 50 movies before 1955, plays up the latent homo-eroticism of Pete and Hank's relationship. When he discovers the evidence Quinlan planted in the bathroom to frame the Mexican, Menzies beams with pride and joy and basks in Hank's kudos. Menzies is perhaps the closest thing the film has to a true hero: he's served under Quinlan for decades, never questions the infallible detective work of a leg that tingles, but when when someone finally wades through his delusional fog and presents all the incontrovertible evidence he subconsciously (or perhaps even actively) ignored, he knows what side he must choose.

The latent homosexuality of Hank and Pete's pairing is further evident as it contrasts with the marital relationship between Vargas and Susie. Susie's storyline can be a bit tough to swallow, as the horrors she suffers through while her husband is off trying to take down Quinlan are genuinely, deeply unsettling. From the moment at the beginning when Susie separates from her husband to naively follow a group of Mexicans who claim to have "something for Señor Vargas," we delve into her character: coming from an implied pampered upbringing (Vargas at one point says, "I can just imagine your mother's face if she could see our honeymoon hotel"), she lacks the world wisdom to know that following a gang of men back across the border can't end well. But she also has her share of spunk and fire; when relatives of the drug lord Vargas is pressing down on try to intimate her, she quickly deduces the situation and holds her own. There's also the matter of her brilliantly underplayed racism. As she follows these men to meet "Uncle Joe" Grandi she repeatedly calls the head thug "Pancho." Later, she declines to be flown to Mexico City to avoid any more hassle while Vargas works the case and asks instead to be taken to a motel on the American side of the border because it makes her more comfortable.

That proves to be a disastrous decision, as the motel is owned by Uncle Joe. Grandi, played by Akim Tamiroff, veers between classic noir sub-villain and comic relief: he sports a bad toupee that often deserts him, is so literally greasy he practically reflects the studio lights and is always jawing his way through a new plan. But he's also incompetent in nearly every respect, only managing to trap Susie at the motel by the sheer luck of her choosing to go there. Hilariously, his farcical instructions to his gang of relatives is the only familial bond of the film. He becomes frightening, however, as he conspires with Quinlan, who's looking for a way to get Vargas off his back. Grandi knows that the last thing a narcotics cop would want getting around would be news that his wife is an addict, so he arranges for his nephews to confront Susie at the motel and inject her with narcotics, or at least a convincing substitute. The scenes of the men, as well as a few, clearly lesbian women, slowly filing into Susie's room and surrounding her are terrifying, and before Welles cuts away to return to Vargas he gives the distinct implication that this gang will rape her as well as dope her. The suspense of these scenes could rival anything put out by Hitchcock.

(It should be noted, actually, that Hitchcock drew on much of Touch of Evil for his 1960 classic Psycho. As I watched Dennis Weaver's magnificent, over-the-top and downright otherworldly portrayal of the skittish, sexually repressed bellhop who only refers to himself as "the night man," I couldn't help but think that I'd like a film simply about him [he's not the only one in this idiosyncratic cast of characters]. Then I thought about Janet Leigh, in a motel staffed by a repressed porter, where something horrible eventually happens to her, and the light bulb clicked on. The British master of suspense ported over these elements entirely and simply mixed the night man with a dash of Ed Gein to get Norman Bates. Hitchcock also attempted to outdo Welles' opening tracking shot with a longer helicopter shot, but you can clearly see in Psycho's opening moments that he used multiple takes. Too, the scene of Quinlan strangling Grandi and leaving his corpse hanging directly over Susie's unconscious head so that she stirs and awakens under the bulging eyes and protruding tongue of Grandi as if in some sort of deathly orgasm is as terrifying and perversely sexual as anything the great cinematic voyeur ever produced. Notably, the triple shock cut of Grandi's gruesome visage was stolen to use in the scene of the man's eyes gouged in The Birds. Funnily enough, Welles would cast Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates himself, in his next film -- or the next to actually be finished and released, anyway -- The Trial.)

Susie's predicaments are largely the result of Vargas' neglect. Vargas admits the seedy nature of border towns ("they bring out the worst in a country"), yet he chose to take her there for a honeymoon. Clearly the implication is that he came there so he could monitor drug activity even on his vacation. Had he spent more time caring about his wife, she might not have been taken by Grandi's gang, might never have driven out to that remote motel. He does, however, come to his senses when he realizes that his wife is in danger, but he turns to wrath and a fascism that belies his earlier ideologies in an effort to rescue her. He nearly assaults the (somewhat) innocent night man to learn where Grandi took Susie, then drives into town like a man possessed. Ironically, he drives right past Susie, screaming for help on a balcony, to confront the men who kidnapped her for revenge. "I'm not a cop anymore, I'm a husband!" he snarls to "Pancho" before tossing these terrified men all over the place. There's a tendency in American film to celebrate this sort of person, the man who cuts through swaths of red tape (and humans) in the name of "justice," but if we do not compare Vargas' show of force in response to his harmed wife or the illegal methods he takes to procure evidence against his nemesis, then what right do we have to call Quinlan the villain? Welles does not play up the thrill of fascistic vengeance; he uses it to simultaneously humanize and analyze both Vargas and Quinlan.

In Quinlan, Welles has an anti-Falstaff: charismatic and beloved by all, Quinlan uses his charm for evil and personal gain. Whether his "intuition" is right or not, planting evidence just to speed up the process clearly oversteps the boundaries of the law. Welles shoots himself with low-angle shots to accentuate both his girth and his status among his adoring partners; twice, he places himself in front of bull horns to emphasize his personality (amusingly, one of these comes with a reverse shot of Vargas that pairs him with a matador). The revelation that a "half-breed" murdered his wife smacks of typical Hollywood character explication, but Welles plays it as only a facet of deeply ingrained societal prejudice. Consider that Quinlan, a border cop of many decades, does not know a word of Spanish; no one could possibly survive in such a place without bilingual skills, but Quinlan likely finds anything that brings him closer to Mexicans distasteful. No, the truly humanizing quality in Quinlan comes from his interactions with a gypsy bordello madam (Marlene Dietrich, her casting so secret that the first time anyone at Universal even heard about it is when her face showed up in dailies); their conversations carry the natural fire of good noir innuendo, and there's a plain regret on Quinlan's face that their relationship stalled.

Many attribute the parallels between Charles Foster Kane and the young Welles (many of which only took on an eerie significance later in life) to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, who indeed penned some of the finest, darkest wit of Hollywood's golden age. However, all of Welles' work contained some allusions to his own life, and considering how he used all interviews to fuel a deceptive persona, they are invaluable looks into a man who knew everything went wrong for him and continued anyway. In Touch of Evil, Quinlan relies on a cane to get around. Numerous references are made to it, and the cane ultimately seals his fate; naturally this recalls a certain other Kane that doomed Welles' career thanks to William Randolph Hearst's vicious suppression. When Quinlan visits Dietrich at the end and asks her to read his future, she looks him in the eye with a steely gaze and says, "You haven't got any. Your future's all used up." Welles was already on his last leg in Hollywood, and the failure of this film resulted in his being shut out of town (of course, he would continue to make films abroad and in the United States and even act in Hollywood productions).

That gloomy self-awareness is off-set somewhat by Welles' ability to poke fun at himself: often he makes light of his weight, and nearly everything Quinlan says has a certain wit to it. That peevish side of Welles allows him to play up the ethnic stereotyping of a socially acceptable '50s racial drama while undercutting it with characters so off-kilter that they can't possibly conform to a type. These hysterical caricatures allow him to play around with racism for laughs without letting the laughs come from the racism itself but our incredulity at such people. Perhaps the funniest bit of the film comes when Quinlan, having been lightly approached by his superiors (at least in terms of rank) about the possibility of fabricating evidence. Quinlan immediately puts on a show (actually reminiscent of Kane) that he's leaving and won't return "until the people of the county vote [him] back." In response to his theatrics, the chief and district attorney launch into a show of their own, loudly declaring their support of Quinlan over the plotting of the other, then unifying to blast Vargas, who walks through them with all the subsumed rage that made Heston great. In another wonderful move, Quinlan, bleeding to death and caught red-handed, absurdly formulates a plan aloud to frame Vargas for everything.

These scenes display Welles' directorial mastery far better than the impressive and landmark but boasting opening shot. The scene of the cops investigating the house of the daughter of the man who died in the car explosion is largely unbroken, following Vargas as he translates for Quinlan and walks into the bathroom, knocking over the empty shoe box where Quinlan will later plant the dynamite. Another shot, my personal favorite, takes place in the police department's records office, a modestly sized room made to look far bigger with a stretched out look that places the entire room in focus while distorting the dimensions. Welles choreographs his actors' movements as much as he does the camera's, and you can see all sorts of visual clues and sight gags in nearly every take -- look for the shot of Vargas confronting Quinlan about the evidence. In between them stands Grandi, who will conspire with one to take out the other and eventually be double-crossed. When Vargas and Quinlan draw closer, Welles place the camera at eye level, removing Quinlan's god-like status and establishing Vargas as an equal and a threat.

Touch of Evil may be somewhat ripped from the headlines, but its investigation into police brutality and corruption, as well as the sadly timeless theme of racial prejudice, give it a lasting relevance. Quinlan wades over the border early in the film, acting like it's his jurisdiction every step of the way. One of his lackeys asks, "Are we really crossing the border?" and he dryly counters with "Why not? Thousands do every day." Compare that joking racism with some of the stuff said on actual, paid programs today. The police chief and D.A. trade racist invectives about Vargas on their way to meet with him concerning the "slanderous" allegations of Quinlan's fraud, only to clam up uncomfortably when the elevator door opens and reveals Vargas, who took the stairs, waiting for them. The issue of police brutality presents itself in Quinlan's willingness to beat a confession from his prisoners -- before he throttles Grandi, he calls Pete and tells him to "break" the Mexican suspect -- has a clear analogue in contemporary torture issues and the unreliability of information gained in such a way. At the end of the film, a cop tells Vargas that Quinlan was "right after all" about the boy, who confessed, but obviously the confession cannot be trusted because of what the cops did to get it. The only real justice can come from the boy's release, as well as anyone else imprisoned under Quinlan's fraud, even if they were guilty (a similar situation is handled too neatly in Steven Spielberg's otherwise excellent Minority Report).

Charlton Heston said of the film that is was no more than a good B-movie, a genre picture, but that's selling it short. For one thing, too many big name stars appear even in minor roles for this to be written off as a B-movie. More importantly, though, it displays Welles ability to change the medium even as he works at least partly through formal technique. Welles' style wasn't a perect match for film noir: he preferred high contrast black and white to shades of gray in his lighting. But he rectifies it here, as well as in The Lady From Shanghai, by creating not characters or lighting schemes full of moral ambiguity but entire stories filled with murky intrigue. Touch of Evil is every bit the masterpiece that Citizen Kane or Chimes at Midnight is, but it also plays around a bit in the shallow waters of its genre pool. I don't know that a film noir contained such a rich cast of offbeat, captivating characters until the Coens came along in the mid-'80s and wound up creating careers out of such casts. In its theatrical or preview cut, it's a classic, one with themes running deeper than your average, bleak but vague crime thriller. Its restored version, though, it's one of the great triumphs of cinema, one that closes a chapter not on its genre but the medium as a whole. I defy you to watch this film and spare yourself the time to mourn Welles' mishandling. You'll be too busy marveling.

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