Touch of Evil

Dir: Orson Welles, 1958. Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles. Film Noir/Classics.
Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil is one in a long list of artistic triumphs for Orson Welles that was scandalously treated as a failure from the “lost years” of his post-Citizen Kane free-fall of a film career. Nowadays the film has been accorded the status of an absolute crime film classic usually referred to as the last real film noir of the original cycle. But try telling that to the dumb dumbs at Universal who decided to ignore his 58 page memo on crucial edits to the film and instead cobbled together their own sanitized version of his deliriously sleazy border town saga—a baroque mixture of pulp noir and Shakespearian tragedy as only Welles could envision and execute. Touch of Evil was meant to be Welles’ Hollywood studio return to form after a decade spent in European exile chasing money to fund his mostly dead-ended film projects. But as with so many events in Welles’s Hollywood career the end result was a cold, stilted, even hostile reaction to his exhilarating achievement. He could never shake his reputation as the enfant terrible of tinsel town and this black cloud of notoriety had a habit of eventually destroying any opportunities that lay ahead of him no matter the evidence to the contrary that he generally worked on time and under budget.

Nothing seemed to dispel Welles’ legend as a colossal money and time waster. We might wonder why he got these deals in the first place if the studios were given to losing faith in him so predictably, but such is the enduring mystique behind the life and work of Orson Welles. He was the real deal, the consummate auteur whose technical and narrative innovations in film we have still not yet caught up to and perhaps because of this he was someone Hollywood was never going to trust. It’s not easy starting at the top of your game with a film like Citizen Kane—still generally considered the greatest film ever made and, as such, something he was never allowed to top. Though his outsized life left us with more questions than answers what we do have is his fascinating body of work or what’s left of it. The uncut version of the Magnificent Ambersons is lost to history courtesy of the malicious meddling of RKO and likewise The Lady From Shanghai will never be seen as he intended due to Harry Cohn’s celluloid butchery over at Columbia. His footage of Carnival in Brazil that he shot for the still unfinished documentary It’s All True is rotting in a studio vault as I write this. The list of legendary lost films goes on and on.

Luckily for us the original memo detailing Welles’ editing instructions for Touch of Evil were eventually incorporated into a director’s cut of the film. It finally played to rave reviews and packed houses upon its rerelease in the late 1990s. It’s this version that was released on DVD.

The mood is set from the first frame with Henry Mancini’s score full of Latin rhythms and glitzy blasts of horn emanating from a car radio. Saturday night in a Mexican border town is in full swing with its carousing American couples drunk and on holiday, bordellos, and neon flashing strip joints. A ticking bomb has been placed in the trunk of a convertible into which an unfortunate American couple enters  moments later. From the beginning of their downtown cruise to the violent explosion that chars them up just across the American border the entire sequence is one long tracking shot that Welles the wunderkind pulls off with seamless aplomb. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh play Mike and Susie Vargas. He’s a Mexican narcotics officer and she’s his American wife. Just married and on the town for the evening, their moment of bliss is cut short by the fiery cauldron of death just over the border. Mike’s mission to get Susie a chocolate soda is put on hold now that there are dismembered body parts littering the street.

The fact that the bomb was placed in the victims’ car on the Mexican side of the border but kills them on the American side leads to a jurisdiction dispute between Vargas, the high ranking Mexican officer, and Police Captain Hank Quinlan (played by Welles with a pointy prosthetic nose), a grotesquely outsized gargoyle of a man whose corrupt dealings as a dirty cop given to planting evidence in order to ensure convictions seem to have left their decadent mark all over his fat face. He seems to ooze sweat and talks as if he’s chewing his words for maximum maliciousness and Welles plays it to the hilt. Hank Quinlan, one of the greatest heavies of any crime flick, is not just a dirty cop but a highly revered one. Though his reputation as a cop who follows his intuition towards easy convictions is the pride of the force, it's really just a house of cards waiting for someone to knock it over. It's not until Vargas gets suspicious that Quinlan's epic downfall begins.

Vargas is mounting a case against the notorious Grandi family, a Mexican crime family that operates in both the U.S. and Mexico. The Grandis are after Vargas—he narrowly misses a glass bottle of acid aimed right at his face. But now that Vargas is causing problems for Captain Quinlan he’s making new and powerful enemies. Quinlan is accused by Vargas as planting evidence against a young man dating the daughter of the man blown up just across the U.S. border. Quinlan, facing the inevitable obliteration of his sterling reputation on the force goes into cahoots with "Uncle" Joe Grandi, current head of the Grandi crime family. Both men want to get back at Vargas. Quinlan, now boozing after 20 years on the wagon, is about to be done in by his years of corrupt dealings but he refuses to accept it and lurches even further downward, believing he can intimidate his friends and enemies alike into letting him get away with it.

As Vargas sniffs around Quinlan’s files looking for evidence of forgery, Susie is carted off to a motel in the middle of nowhere on the U.S. side of the border. Talk about a lousy plan. No sooner is she in her room trying to sleep off the insanity of the last 24 hours than the leather clad Grandi kids pull up on their motorcycles with the instructions to terrify her courtesy of Uncle Joe. They blast some good time rock n’ roll into her room and wait for more of their friends to arrive. When Susie tries to call Vargas they shut down the phone lines. She’s trapped and has no one to cry for help to for miles in any direction. In a scene of pretty shocking depravity for 1958 the gang of Mexican biker boys and their chicks descends on Susie’s room. They surround her and tie her legs together while she screams before the scene fades out.

Susie, drugged, wakes up in a filthy room on the U.S. side of the border, a neon motel light flashing outside her window. Propped right in front of her is the bloated head of Uncle Joe Grandi. In a reckless binge of murder and cover up Quinlan killed Uncle Joe and left his corpse in Susie’s room hoping she’ll be held responsible as a drug crazed lunatic. Susie shrieks when she sees Uncle Joe’s bug-eyed head and runs half naked onto the balcony screaming for someone to help her. The pleasure seeking throngs down below laugh and jeer at her, the dark heart of fun town beats on.

Vargas, finally reunited with Susie, not only wants justice but also revenge against Quinlan. He convinces Quinlan’s not-too-bright pal on the force, Pete Menzies, to wear a wire and betray Quinlan, the man he looks up to more than anyone. In a final sequence of bravura filmmaking Welles has Vargas silently track Menzies and Quinlan as they walk along a bridge with Vargas listening in from the shallow river below. Menzies, tortured by what he must do, gets an admission of guilt of sorts from Quinlan but gets a bullet in the chest for his efforts, as does Quinlan from Menzies' gun.

As it turns out, the boyfriend of the woman whose father was killed in the dynamite blast eventually confessed to the crime, matching perfectly with Quinlan’s hunch that it was he who planted the dynamite. As Quinlan’s corpse lays floating in the water his old friend from the Mexican side of the border, Tanya, played by the otherworldly Marlene Dietrich as a favor to her old pal Welles, rushes over to see what happened. “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” she says her rouged cheeks and sultry expression having charmed Quinlan days earlier when it was much too late for him to carry on a love affair. As she told him then, “You’re a mess honey. You haven’t got any future. It’s all used up.” A saloon piano melody ends the film on a slightly ironic note, its low rent charm perfectly embodying the cheap thrills of a border town that never stop for the human wreckage in its wake.

Touch of Evil was more or less dumped by the studio onto the market and left to rot as an oddity that featured Charlton Heston wearing a pound of make-up to play a Mexican from a “once great” director who had gone off the rails. Welles had started out his career in Hollywood with the golden ticket—final cut on a project of his choice. That he wound down the 1950s on a B picture project and had it eventually taken away from him was just one more in a cruel series of twists that defined his remarkable, improbable life. That a picture so exciting and innovative as Touch of Evil could be seen by anyone as anything but a fabulous return to form for a master of cinema is proof that in Hollywood reality often takes a back seat to company town politics. To put it in perspective, commenting on the endless absurdity of how hard a time he had getting pictures made in Hollywood Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “Oh, how they’ll love me when I’m gone!”


Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 10, 2009 2:34pm
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