Saturday, January 8, 2011

Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles

Orson Welles as the seedy Captain Quinlan.
Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is soon scheduled to testify in a trial against a notorious Mexican crime family, the Grandis. In the meantime, while on his honeymoon, he gets embroiled in corruption in a Texas border town when a car-bombing kills an American developer. Because it's clear the explosive was planted on the Mexican side of the border, Vargas joins the investigation. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the American police captain, thinks he knows who did it, and to prove it, he's not above planting evidence to secure a conviction. "I never framed anyone," he says, "...unless they're guilty." Vargas is shocked by such unsavory police methods and threatens to out Quinlan. To protect his own reputation and pressure Vargas to back off, Quinlan joins forces with Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).

Welles employs his characteristic camera magic--extended takes, deep focused darkened scenes with jarring angles, and unsettling close-ups, in this, the last of the classic American film noirs, a genre that petered out before 1960. It is a marvelously seedy atmospheric setting, where it's hard to tell the criminals from the cops. In the repulsive Quinlan, Welles creates one of noir's most memorable characters. Thirty years on the job and the murder of his wife has turned him into a man almost diseased by the fifth that cakes his soul. "I'm always thinking of her, drunk or sober," he admits. "What else is there to think about, except my job, my dirty job?" Obese and crude, he hasn’t shaved in days and looks to have slept in his clothes. You imagine he stinks.

Joe Grandi Shrinks in fear. 
In a film full of great sequences, the most critically acclaimed is the audacious three-minute plus opening high crane tracking shot that sets up the car explosion. Cars, street vendors, and pedestrians crisscross in front of and behind Vargas and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) as they walk down the street and pass through a border inspection station. Complicated and reliant on perfect timing, it is a magnificent technical achievement. Two other memorable scenes both involve Janet Leigh. In the first, Susanthought to be safely tucked away in an isolated American motelis overpowered by creepy Grandi gang members, including Mercedes McCambridge in a cameo. She leers at the struggling girl with glee, saying, "I want to watch." Later, with Susan drugged and half-naked on a bed in a downtown hotel, Quinlan and a perfectly terrified Joe Grandi have a tense and pivotal encounter. Quinlan, drunk and sleep-deprived, shows his cruelty and desperation in an effort to protect himself.

Quinlan: "Come on, read my future for me.
Tanya: "You haven't got any."
Quinlan: "Hmm? What do you mean?"
Tanya: Your future's all used up."
The film is all about betrayal. There are four: Quinlan has long-since abandoned the police code of honor and he double-crosses Uncle Joe; Vargas resorts to unethical tactics to trap the big man; and most disturbing, Quinlan's right-hand-man, deputy Menzies, helps him do it. Joseph Calleia plays the loyal Menzies in a great performance. The captain once saved his life by taking a bullet meant for him. When finally forced to see his idol as he really is, corrupt and a killer, Menzies is sick with anguish. He loves the man.        

Janet Leigh thinks she's safe in a motel.
Henry Mancini wrote a wildly effective jazzy/swing score and two terrific supporting roles add to the unsettling nature of the film. Dennis Weaver plays a weirdly nervous hotel night clerk, and Marlene Dietrich is an out-of-place gypsy fortune teller, Tanya, who may have had a fling with Quinlan years ago. Illustrating the depth of his decline, he has become so fat she doesn’t recognize him, saying, "lay off the candy bars." Dietrich has the wonderful last line in the film.  

What Makes Touch of Evil Special:

Welles perfectly captured the visual style of Noir and produced a film significantly more entertaining than his consensus masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

There are lots of little touches thrown in, unnoticed except through repeated viewings. When Quinlan throttles Grandi, hoping to frame Susan for murder, he forgets his cane. He passes through the door, where a sign hangs reminding occupants not to leave anything behind. At one point a Grandi thug throws acid at Vargas. He misses but splashes a poster of the stripper killed in the opening car explosion. In another scene Uncle Joe loses his toupee.

The power of the film lies in Welles' ability to make a morally degenerate character almost sympathetic. Sure Quinlan's methods are as crooked as the criminals he chases, but the man's hunches on the guilty are right on the mark. Something happened to him in the past that we don’t get to see, but you sense he was a good man once upon a time. And betrayal is never pretty, no matter who the target.
Inside Story:

The film was famously re-edited by the studio against Welles' ardent wishes, deleting several minutes and reshooting some scenes. Welles didn't want credits shown or background music to interfere with the famous opening tracking shot.

Joseph Calleia played El Sordo in 1944's For Whom the Bells Tolls, which also starred Akim Tamiroff as the guerrilla band leader, Pablo.

Director of photography, Russell Metty, also shot 1961's The Misfits and 1960's Spartacus, for which he won an Academy Award.   

A box office bust in the U.S. upon its initial release, it was lauded elsewhere, named best film at the 1958 Brussels World Fair by critics/judges Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who'd later direct Breathless and The 400 Blows, respectively.

The Famed Opening Sequence:

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