Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cinema Bestius: Touch of Evil

“What does it matter what you say about people?”

#24 – Touch of Evil
Orson Welles was a genius… and Hollywood does not handle “genius” well. I sometimes wonder if the major studios were secretly running a decades-long con called “Let’s Seize Control of the Latest Orson Welles Film and Muck It Up by Re-editing It!”

Really.

We might ponder that Citizen Kane was one of his few films to NOT feel the touch of a Neanderthal’s scissors. (Welles’s contract forbade it; the studio merely tried to BURY that one.) Kane gives us a tantalizing glimpse into what films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil may have been like before some studio exec got it into his head that he too was a FILMMAKER. Some people are very good at making films, and other people are very good at financing and marketing films, and never the twain shall meet. Whenever I think about the cultural vandalism that destroyed part of Welles’s work it makes my blood boil, and I am reminded of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit involving a spurned architect…

JOHN CLEESE
(After being rejected)
Well, of course, this is just the sort blinkered, philistine pig-ignorance I've come to expect from you non-creative garbage.... You sit there on your loathsome, spotty behinds squeezing blackheads, not caring a tinker's cuss for the struggling artist. You excrement… you whining, hypocritical toadies with your color TV sets and your Tony Jacklin golf clubs…
The Plot In Brief: A bomb is placed in the trunk of a car and driven over the America/Mexico border where it explodes. This sets in motion an uneasy police investigation involving Mexican police detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and cantankerous American police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The two take an immediate dislike to each other, and matters are not helped much by the fact that the newly married Vargas is trying to enjoy some quality time with his bride Susie (Janet Leigh). The investigation seems to come to a quick end when Quinlan finds a suspect, but Vargas doubts that Quinlan is playing it straight. Will the culprit be brought to justice? Will Vargas be free to enjoy his honeymoon? What on earth is Marlene Dietrich doing in this film?
There are many stories about how Welles came to direct the film instead of just acting in it. My favorite of these is that Charlton Heston—upon hearing that Welles was slated to appear in the new Albert Zugsmith production, Touch of Evil—made it known that he would be much more likely to sign on if Welles was also directing. Go Charlton! Of course, be careful what you wish for… because in rewriting the script (based on the 1956 novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson) and directing the film, Welles turned the film completely around. What started as a drama about Heston’s character became a character study (some would say a requiem) for Welles’s character.

Touch of Evil is famous for its epic, three-minute-twenty-second unbroken tracking shot, showing the placing of the bomb and its journey over the border. It is groundbreaking, breathtaking filmmaking. The shot has been referenced and parodied countless times in (among others) Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, Robert Altman’s The Player, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and even an episode of Better Call Saul.
Marlene Dietrich shows up as a south-of-the-border madam, appearing in the film as a personal favor to Welles. She is given all the film’s best lines, including the memorable closer. These scenes of Welles’s character Quinlan—gone to seed and remembering a happier past with his old pal Tana, while she can barely disguise her contempt for this drunken, broken-down, old fat man who keeps appearing at her door—go a long way toward humanizing Quinlan’s character. These scenes with Dietrich are also Welles commenting on himself, the former hotshot director who is putting on prodigious weight and finds it harder and harder to get work at what he is good at. Welles essentially takes a routine police procedural and turns it into a Shakespearian tragedy about a police detective with too many vices and not a whole hell of a lot of time left.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. In 1998, forty years after the compromised Touch of Evil was released and failed at the box office, Universal Studios hired editing wunderkind Walter Murch to put the film back the way Welles originally envisioned it, based on a famous 58-page memo Welles wrote in 1958 to try and save his film. This cobbled-together director’s cut is the version we enjoy today, including the famous opening tracking shot without any distracting credits.

Make yourself a cup of coffee. You can read the entire memo here.
Touch of Evil’s Three Miracles: the over-the-top ensemble acting of the supporting cast: Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Zsa-Zsa Gabor, Joi Lansing, and Mercedes McCambridge; the beautiful, dark, expressionist cinematography of Russell Metty; and the ambition and vision of Orson Welles, who turned what could have been a forgettable, run-of-the-mill “B Picture” into one of the best film noirs of all time.

“In Nomine Welles, et Welles, y spiritu Welles, Amen.”

3 comments:

  1. This movie is amazing! It's a favorite of my brother and mine. We saw a screening of it and were absolutely blown away. Welles is terrifying and pathetic at the same time. I hadn't thought about it being Shakespearean, but you're absolutely correct.

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  2. I have to see this and way more Orson Welles films! Thanks! OW was really great on radio, too, and I've listened to all the Campbell's Playhouse radio episodes I could find. His Les Miserables is like the definitive version of LM across any medium and that one I listen to regularly and know it by heart because it's so inspiring. He was phenomenal.

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  3. This is my favorite Welles film. Hank Quinlan is another outsized version of Welles himself, alongside Charles Foster Kane and Falstaff. I can only imagine the pain Welles endured when he first sat down to see what Universal had done to this, the perfect film noir. It's funny - I was just reading about Welles's last unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. It started filming in 1970. It finished principal photography in 1976. And it's supposed to take place over the course of a single night. I continue to be amazed at Welles's ability to patch together masterpieces over the course of years, and I sincerely hope that The Other Side of the Wind does finally get finished. Hell, it took this long for Chimes at Midnight to get the video release it finally deserved.

    The moment when Quinlan mutters to Joe Grandi that he does not drink, only to see that he has already fallen off the wagon - that slight hitch in his voice when he knows he has gone too far to go back. Touch of Evil is known for its filmmaking brilliance, but Welles's performance is one for the ages.

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