Friday, 19 February 2010

Touch of Evil (1958)

"This just in... Tokyo is under attack by a
40 foot Orson Welles. Hide your frozen peas!"

From reading my blog it might appear that all I watch are obscure exploitation films, but that's not the case. Believe it or not, I also like to watch adult films for grownups, entertainment that can be legitimately called "film" and watched and enjoyed by people with fully developed brains. One kind of film I particularly enjoy is the 1940s/50s crime melodrama that would later be dubbed "film noir", and this film is recognised as the last classic of that genre. It's directed by and starring Orson Welles, most remembered for a little film you might have heard of, widely recognised as the finest film ever made, Transformers: The Movie. Plus some other stuff, like Citizen Kane. I don't know if I'm putting forward an unpopular opinion here, but this Orson Welles guy? He makes pretty a good film. Trust me, he's going to be big.

You can't say anything about Touch of Evil without mentioning the justifiably famous three-and-a-half minute tracking shot that opens the film. I'm a sucker for a good tracking shot, and this is one of the best ever. It starts with a closeup of a man putting a time bomb in a car, and then follows the car as it drives towards the US/Mexican border, the camera soaring high over the Mexican border town where much of the film is set. Then it zooms in close to introduce our protagonist, Mexican DEA agent Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife Susie (Janet Leigh), finally cutting away as the bomb goes off and the car explodes into flames. This is some incredible shit, and it blows my mind to think it was made in 1958, well before the Steadicam was invented.

Of course Welles' great camerwork doesn't stop there. As usual he uses a wide-angle lens, and not just because it was the only way to fit the fat bastard into the frame. This is, in my opinion, one of the most beautifully photographed black-and-white films of all time. The lighting is fantastic (an essential component of film noir) and the cinematography is years ahead of it's time. In an age where most filmmakers were content to just point-and-shoot, Welles keeps the camera constantly moving, using fast-paced (for the time) editing and thoughtful camera angles that are loaded with symbolism. In the aftermath of the car-bomb there is a shot where Vargas is framed by a billboard that reads "WELCOME STRANGER!" The movie is full of this shit.

You might be saying to yourself"Orson Welles is good behind a camera? Tell me something I don't know, asshole? What about the story?" Well, to be honest this is one of those films where the plot is secondary to the atmosphere and direction. Legend has it that with this film Welles asked for the worst script his producer could find to prove that he could make a great film out of a lousy story. I don't know if it's that bad, but like many of the great film noirs it is meandering and convoluted. Apparently Welles wanted to frustrate the audience with a labyrinthine plot a la The Big Sleep, but I think he fucked up because I didn't have too much trouble following what was going on.

After the great opening scene, Vargas realises that the car-bomb could spark an international incident, so he decides to help the local police investigate the crime. The investigation is led by the well-respected Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), but soon Vargas realises that Quinlan's legendary police intuition is actually just years of planting evidence on the most likely suspect. Complicating matters is the local crime boss "Uncle" Joe Grandi, who sends out his thugs to harrass Vargas' wife in the hopes that he will quit hassling his brother in Mexico City. As Vargas tries to expose Quinlan's dirty methods, Quinlan forms an uneasy truce with Grandi and formulates a plan that will discredit Vargas and destroy his career.

At first it's hard to get around Charlton Heston playing Vargas, one of the all-time greatest racial miscasts since John Wayne played Genghis Khan or Jar Jar Binks played a Jamaican. In fact, when Quinlan first meets him he remarks "He doesn't look Mexican." Yeah, no shit, he looks like the victim of an unfortunate tanning bed accident. On the plus side he isn't in crazy scenery-chewing mode here, as entertaining as that can be; this is one of Heston's most restrained and probably best performances. Besides, it's not like he's the only whitey playing a Mexican. You've also got Marlene Dietrich playing a Mexican gypsy and Russian-born Akim Tamiroff as "Uncle" Joe Grandi. Every nationality under the sun, except an actual Mexican.

Of course, the real star of the show is Welles himself as the repugnant Captain Quinlan. Welles donned padding and makeup to make himself look even fatter, but he was well on the way to make such embellishment obsolete. He waddles around, unkempt and unshaven, and at one point Dietrich, playing his ex-lover, wisely tells him "You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars." Welles gives Quinlan a human fragility and motivation, so his downfall seems like an inevitable tragedy rather than just desserts. Like Dietrich says "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"(she hogs all the good lines in the film).

Quinlan may be a bastard, but Vargas is pretty much the worst husband ever. He abandons his wife, on their wedding night no less, so he can investigate a crime completely unrelated to him. Then, after Vargas almost gets acid thrown in his face, he sends her off alone to stay at a creepy hotel even though he knows Vargas has been hassling and following her. Oh yeah, and the hotel just so happens to be owned by the Grandi family. Between this and Psycho, Leigh has got some really bad luck choosing hotels. Grandi sends his thugs out to her room (including a couple of evil lesbians) who imply they are going to gang-rape her, then they knock her out with sodium pentathal and make it appear like she's taken part in a wild, drug-fueled orgy. This is all part of an elaborate plan to discredit her husband. I don't know why they didn't just shoot her up full of drugs and gang rape her for real. Pretty nice of them, actually.

Naturally these two flawed characters face off at the end of the film after a masterfully edited chase sequence, and the film ends with a sad compromise. Like in the best film noir, Touch of Evil doesn't truck in absolutes but in shades of grey. Unfortunately the public were losing their tastes for this kind of film. Before it was released it was famously re-cut by the skittish producers at Universal and released as the B-film of a double feature. It was poorly recieved by audiences and critics but went on to universal acclaim, except for Ingmar Bergman but fuck that guy. In the end this film was recognised as a classic, and you couldn't ask for a better film to cap off the genre.

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