Thursday 11 March 2010

Touch of Evil (1958)

Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Orson Welles

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

In 1957 Orson Welles presented his first cut of Touch of Evil to Universal but the studio felt it could be improved, a concept that tormented Welles throughout his career. They shot new footage and reedited the film against his will, causing Welles within hours to write what has been described as 'a passionate 58 page memo' requesting editorial changes. That's more than some scripts. The first time I saw Touch of Evil was in the studio's butchered version, which is nonetheless still a classic. The second time round I saw Welles's own preferred version which, amongst other things, preserves the legendary opening shot which is a truly stunning piece of cinema, leaving the credits until the end. The studio version has those credits slapped all over the opening so that I didn't even notice the genius unfolding on screen first time around.

As the film starts we're looking at a bomb, held close to a man's chest, but then we shift perspective to the man himself and watch as he plants it inside the boot of a car. He gets out of the way just as the owners turn up and we pan up and over a building to follow them and the car onto the main road of Los Robles, which straddles the US/Mexican border, falling back a couple of blocks as it waits at traffic lights. Eventually the camera finds Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, crossing the road. Both the car and these characters work on down through the border station, connecting and disconnecting like dance partners, until eventually we hear about a ticking noise in the car, then focus back in on Heston and Leigh who are on their honeymoon. Only when they kiss does the car explode, off screen, and everything promptly turns to chaos.

And all of this is one single uninterrupted shot, three and a half minutes long. This seemed to me at the time as unmatched in cinema as a masterpiece of choreography and shifting perspectives, but I've since seen a couple of films by Max Ophüls, including 1950's La Ronde, which has an opening shot that puts even this one to shame. Nonetheless it demonstrates yet again both the genius of Orson Welles and the sort of hassle that he had to put up with when attempting to create his films. It's often pointed out that when Welles first came to Hollywood he had complete control over his creation and the result was Citizen Kane, often referenced as the greatest film ever made. However after pissing off someone as important as William Randolph Hearst, who after all ran a few newspapers, that he never got the same level of control again and the results never soared to the same heights.

At least that's what they say. As I began to explore the depths of his career in 2004 I discovered something a little different because many of his films, including The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai and Mr Arkadin, can still easily be described as masterpieces, and this one would seem to be above them all, with the exception only of Citizen Kane. I was stunned by Touch of Evil, even in the butchered version, which really says something, but especially in what would nowadays be described as the director's cut, even though it didn't see the light of day until 1998, thirteen years after his death. It's a film that warrants multiple viewings, not just because of the complexities of the plot but because the casting choices only become more intriguing as the viewer learns more about classic cinema.

Welles took a lot of chances here, but the most obvious ones were with the casting, some of which is especially strange or at least seems so from my viewpoint over fifty years on. Most obviously, to play the central character of Miguel 'Mike' Vargas, some sort of moustachioed Mexican, Welles cast that most American of Americans, Charlton Heston. What's more, the bad guys steal his gun without the courtesy of making his hand a cold dead one in the process. All this could easily have backfired as massively as other ludicrous casting choices like having Katharine Hepburn play a mountain girl, putting Humphrey Bogart into a hillbilly wrestling comedy or casting John Wayne as the centurion who looks up at Jesus on the cross and says, 'Truly, this man was the son of God.' Somehow Heston makes it work, though I'm still not quite sure how he did it. It seems insane to think of him as a Mexican but the idea is growing on me, however much he had trouble keeping our attention in many of his confrontational scenes.

Vargas is some sort of high powered Mexican investigator, involved in a cleanup operation that is never quite made clear, but presumably ties to drugs and organised crime. What is made clear is that he's in the process of putting the leader of the Grandi gang in jail in Mexico City. The Grandi family's reach stretches as far as Los Robles and they're integral parts of much of what follows. The man in the car was a local construction boss called Rudy Linnaker, with his stripper girlfriend, but he's only the MacGuffin of the piece. Everything happens because of him but his only involvement is to die and trigger it all. We don't even know if his death has anything to do with what Vargas is investigating or whether he really is just heading Stateside to honeymoon with his new wife.

His young wife is Susie, who Janet Leigh plays as sassy as they come. She has more cojones than any leading lady of the era and, while she's rather prone to bad decisions, she's certainly a pleasing change from the sort of women that usually found their way onto Hollywood films in 1958. I'd never thought of Orson Welles as a feminist before but he certainly implies it here with the character of Susie. 'What have I got to lose?' she asks in this border town when a stranger asks her to follow him into a strange building to meet other strangers. 'You silly little pig,' she calls Uncle Joe Grandi when she finds herself face to face with him. 'You ridiculous, old-fashioned, jug-eared, lop-sided Little Caesar!'

Leigh is superb, whether playing headstrong or vulnerable. She also has the worst time in a motel room that she could have imagined, at least for the next couple of years until Psycho. She's famously mentioned that after the latter film she was scared to take a shower again, but I'm amazed she ever went back to a motel. Really the convolutions of plot that she's carried through don't matter at all, because like The Big Sleep it's the journey not the destination that counts. We're watching the characters swagger and step and struggle through the story rather than the story itself. Like The Big Sleep, they could be right or wrong and it wouldn't matter because we're watching them and what motivates them.

Most of all we're watching Orson Welles, who may only be third credited in his own film but is by far the most obvious thing about it. Only nine years after playing the sharp and suave Harry Lime in The Third Man, he's almost unrecognisable as Hank Quinlan, a bloated whore of a police chief who we first see struggling to get out of his car. He's so swollen that he doesn't seem to fit properly on the screen and he's often shot from below to make him look even more blatantly obese. He slurs his speech like he's drunk even when he isn't and frequently talks while eating. 'You're a mess, honey,' says Tanya, a former paramour who doesn't even recognise him any more, and she isn't kidding.

What's most fascinating is that he's such a complex character. Apparently driven by the murder of his wife many years before, he's become a legend on the force for the amount of cases he's successfully closed. As he mentions at one point, his wife's murderer was the last killer he never found, but we discover over time that he's as corrupt as they come. The source novel by Whit Masterson was called Badge of Evil, which is a little too polarising for this film, as the title change would suggest, because Quinlan does all the wrong things for all the right reasons. There are fascinating contrasts to his character. When one of his colleagues mentions that he speaks like a lawyer, he disputes that. 'I'm no lawyer,' he says. 'All a lawyer cares about is the law.' As Tanya points out at the end of the film, he's 'a great detective but a lousy cop.' That's a rare and fascinating line to walk.

Welles cast a lot of lesser known names that shine here, although very few are believable as Mexican. Surprisingly one of the better attempts comes from Akim Tamiroff, who was born in Russia. He's Uncle Joe Grandi, the leader of the Grandi family while his brother is in jail, though he's a comedic crook with his pencil moustache and his runaway toupée, at least comedic in a rather sleazy way to fit in with the rather sleazy tone of the movie. Joseph Calleia is Quinlan's sidekick, Sgt Pete Menzies, who is less sleazy and more inept, a crooked cop who doesn't even know he's crooked. He's far older here than I'm used to seeing him, because he's over a quarter of a century into a long screen career with only four films to go. Ray Collins and Mort Mills are suitably faceless as the DA and his assistant.

Elsewhere Zsa Zsa Gabor appears briefly as a stripper and Marlene Dietrich is a joy to behold in a few short scenes as Tanya, a darkly seductive cigar smoking gypsy woman with her incredibly languid eyes that just invite us to dive into them. She shot this film as a favour to Welles, expecting to only be paid union wage, but when the studio added her to the credits they had to pay her more for the privilege. Most notable is Dennis Weaver, who is a wildly paranoid and twitchy motel clerk, like something out of the imagination of David Lynch thirty years before Lynch ever got it onto celluloid himself. I'm not sure if he's supposed to be retarded, withdrawn or strung out on something but he's a hoot. Nobody lets the side down, all the way from the leads down to uncredited turns from Joseph Cotten, Keenan Wynn and Mercedes McCambridge. I think I've blinked at the wrong moment every time I've watched this movie and missed Cotten each time.

And then there's the biggest star that ever featured in any Welles movie: his technique. Citizen Kane isn't just the most highly regarded film of all time, it's the most analysed and dissected film there is, full of technique that just screams to be talked about. There's plenty to analyse here too. There's a startling use of light and shade, especially in the hotel murder scene where we feel almost stifled by the shadows. There are daring and innovative camera angles, no doubt influenced by The Third Man. That legendary opening shot is only one of many examples where the camera soars up into the air like it's a bird flying free. The plot is tightly woven and unfolded at a rapid pace, with sharp dialogue and daring twists; the editing often aids the pace, speeding it up or slowing it down at will.

There's also a masterful composition of images on screen, but it comes across less as a set of well composed photographs and more of a choreographed dance of characters and conversations. It's a very busy screen in Touch of Evil, not least because the supporting characters have so much screen time, and almost every shot has motion. Even the still scenes are moved by wind or pulsing light. There are even a few examples of the sort of rapid fire editing Russ Meyer used frequently, to turn still shots into effective motion. This innovative use of editing with constant changes of view makes the picture sometimes claustrophobic and almost hallucinatory. There are often two things going on at once to segue from scene to scene, often two conversations running simultaneously. Characters frequently begin talking to one camera then turn round to finish at another one. There are a number of scenes where conversations are held around pillars or through windows, the camera dancing to keep up. We feel like we've been whirled into that dance and by the time it's over we're disoriented but pleasantly exhausted.

The more I see Welles's work, the more I'm stunned at what he did on screen. I knew him first outside of direction: from his legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast, from the portentous voiceovers he did for Manowar on a few of their songs and from his memorable performance as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Then I saw Citizen Kane and realised just what he could do with full control over a movie. Whether it's the greatest film of all time or not, it's an amazing eye opener to anyone who can look beyond the ride at the machinery making it go. The saddest thing about his legacy is that people talk about Citizen Kane like it's the only thing he did or at least the only thing that turned out how he wanted and so remains worthy of mention. Just watch F for Fake and tell me the master didn't have tricks galore up his sleeve even late in his career.

What else he did was stamp his authority on whatever film he made, even those that he didn't write and direct. He was known to take over and direct his scenes in films that he was only supposed to act in or to rewrite his dialogue to whatever he deemed appropriate. In fact here he was only supposed to act, but because Heston believed he was going to direct too, that's what he did. His films were also notoriously played around with by studios and producers who didn't like what he did, this being a prime example. Yet his films stand out today because of his presence and this one, beyond even Citizen Kane, simply reeks of Welles. As a director he layered the depth and sleaziness of the tone to such a degree that it plays out like a hallucination. As an actor he provided us with the most memorably deep and sleazy corrupt cop I've yet seen on film. Even Citizen Kane didn't have that much.

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