Touch of Evil (1958)

Directed by Orson Welles
Cinematography Russell Metty

Touch of Evil is a 1958 American film noir, written, directed by, and co-starring Orson Welles. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Along with Welles, the cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir in the genre’s classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s).  Since its release, the film’s reputation has grown in stature, and it is now widely regarded as one of Welles’ best films, and also one of the best classic-era films noir.

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There are two stories as to how Welles ended up directing Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally hired to act in the film only, not to direct or write. Universal was keen to secure Heston for the lead, but he wanted the studio to confirm the director before he signed on. After learning that Welles was in the cast, Heston expressed his greater interest in starring if Welles were directing.

The other story is that Welles had recently worked with producer Albert Zugsmith, known as the “King of the Bs”, on a film called Man in the Shadow and was interested in directing something for him. Zugsmith offered him a pile of scripts, of which Welles asked for the worst to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. At the time, the script was called Badge of Evil, after a Whit Masterson novel on which it was based. Welles did a rewrite and took it into production. After a decade in Europe during which he completed only a few films, Welles was eager to direct for Hollywood again, so he agreed to take only an acting fee for the role of Quinlan.

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A number of notable actors pop up in roles. Dennis Weaver plays a night clerk at a motel, in a truly over-the-top performance. Heston liked Weaver and his film acting work. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club, was a friend of the producer. Joseph Calleia portrays Quinlan’s betrayed partner. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles. Marlene Dietrich‘s role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement. Welles’ friend and Mercury Theatre colleague Joseph Cotten appears uncredited as a police officer.

Janet Leigh recalled how Welles asked for input from the actors in the cast:

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It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes

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Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal, and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. However, the film was then re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures. The editing process was protracted and disputed, and the version eventually released was not the film Universal or Welles had hoped for. It was released as a B-movie, the lower half of a double feature. The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles’ film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US (Welles himself claimed that the movie turned a good profit but other records disputed his claim), it was well received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut.

The film opens with a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot widely considered by critics as one of the greatest long takes in cinema history

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A beautiful, haunting and complex film noir

11 July 2005 | by Brandt Sponseller (New York City) – See all my reviews

Rather than films like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), neither of which am I a big fan of, Touch of Evil evidences director/writer/star Orson Welles’ capacity for cinematic genius. The story is engaging, suspenseful, tight and well paced; the cinematography is consistently beautiful, inventive and symbolic; the setting and overall tone of the film, including the performances, are captivating, yet slightly surreal and otherworldly; and there are many interesting subtexts. This all combines to create a complex artwork that will reward however far a viewer wishes to dig into the film.

Based on a novel by Whit Masterson, Badge of Evil, Touch of Evil is a battle between two policemen–Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston). Parallel to this is a kind of border battle between the United States, represented by Quinlan, and Mexico, represented by Vargas; the film is set in two border towns, frequently crossing over.

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As Touch of Evil opens, we see a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car in Mexico. A construction company owner, Mr. Linnekar, gets in with his girlfriend. Vargas and his new wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), manage to walk along next to the car–they’re all crossing the border into the United States. Shortly after crossing, the bomb goes off. This brings the gruff Quinlan into the picture. His investigation of the bombing brings him into Mexico for suspects. Meanwhile, Vargas and his wife are being threatened by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a Mexican mob boss, and his underlings. Both Quinlan and Vargas are well respected in their countries, and both are used to getting what they want. But the bombing investigation ends up putting them at loggerheads, and Quinlan gradually turns out to have more than a “touch of evil”.

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As with many of his films, Orson Welles ended up having to battle the studio to realize his artistic vision. Usually, as here, the battle was unsuccessful for him. Despite his 58-page memo detailing various problems with Universal’s non-director supervised reshoots (by Harry Keller) and re-edits, because they felt that Welles’ final cut “could use some improvement”, the film was released in a form that was not satisfactory to Welles. The fiasco has resulted in various versions of Touch of Evil appearing throughout the years. The 58-page memo was thought to have been lost, but a copy was discovered relatively recently in Charlton Heston’s possession. The film was recut in 1998 based on Welles’ memo. So make sure that you watch the 111-minute version first released by Universal on DVD in 2000.

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The opening scene of Touch of Evil is famous, and rightfully so. Beginning with the timer being set on the bomb, then the bomb being placed in Linnekar’s trunk before he gets into the car, we follow both the car and the relative ebb and flow of Vargases as they roughly walk alongside the car, all in one very long tracking shot that covers a lot of ground and features a lot of unusual angles. Welles stages the scene so that there are all kinds of complex background and foreground elements interacting with the car and our protagonist pedestrians. The suspense built up in this scene is incredible–you just know that bomb is going to go off, but you don’t know just when, or who it is going to hurt. Compositionally, the scene is simply beautiful. The film is worth watching for this opening alone, but the whole of Touch of Evil features similar, meticulously planned artistry, filled with suspense.

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Welles as an actor tends to have a very peculiar way of speaking that is full of affectations. Sometimes this can be a detriment to the film, as it was in The Lady from Shanghai. Here, though, the oddity works, and this despite the fact that, like Woody Allen, he seems to direct his whole cast to deliver their dialogue as if they were him. As a result, Touch of Evil has very peculiar, contrapuntal scenes where people frequently talk on top of one another, with odd phrasing. It works because of the particular kinds of personality conflicts that Welles set up in the script. These are people who frequently _would_ talk on top of each other and occasionally not pay attention to each other.

But that’s not the only odd thing about the film. Welles managed to find locations that, shot in this highly stylized and cinematographically complex film-noir manner, seem almost otherworldly. Except for a couple expansive desert shots, Touch of Evil feels eerily claustrophobic, even though most locations aren’t exactly enclosed. The various modes and settings are all perfect for their dramatic material, which is mostly dark and moody. One change that Universal made was the excision of a lot of comic relief material featuring the Grandi family. Universal was right to cut it, and wisely, Welles agreed.

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The music in the film is also extremely effective but unusual. Most of it is incidental. Latin and rock ‘n’ roll emanates from radios, for example, and the climax intermittently has a repeating, contextually haunting theme from a pianola.

But of course the story is just as important. Although Welles stated hyperbolically at various points that he was trying to “infuriate” the audience with a somewhat inscrutable plot, and it’s true that the plot isn’t exactly given in a straightforward manner, once you figure out the gist, it’s relatively simple but extremely captivating. At the same time, it is full of symbolism and subtexts, including commentary on justice systems and perhaps some irony about the popular conceptions of the U.S. versus Mexico (made more complex by the fact that Quinlan spends just as much time south of the border and Vargas seems to spend a lot of time north). But as for being annoyed, you’re more likely to become infuriated with Quinlan, who becomes more and more deliciously despicable as the film unfolds.

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