Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Touch of Evil"

Decades before anybody ever thought up the concept of a "director's cut," Orson Welles was trying to get his vision of "Touch of Evil" onto screens.

The story is familiar for serious cinephiles: Orson Welles, who was a virtual outcast from Hollywood after his early success, was brought in to star in the film and reluctantly (accounts vary) hired to direct as well. The studio hated Welles' cut of the film, so they ordered it re-edited with some additional footage shot by another director, Harry Keller. Welles issued a lengthy memo with specific suggestions for changes, which went unheeded. This memo was used as a guide when a restored version was issued in 1998.

More than a decade after his death, Welles' cut -- or at least a close approximation of it -- finally saw light of day.

"Touch of Evil" has the setting and mood of a cheap potboiler, but is executed with such daring and verve by Welles and his cast and crew, that even in its altered form it became a classic of film noir. Charlton Heston is the ostensible lead as Miguel Vargas, a crusading Mexican a law enforcement official, but Welles looms overpoweringly -- physically and and otherwise -- as corrupt border police captain Hank Quinlan.

The physical transformation of Welles was shocking. Gone is the slim wunderkind of 1941's "Citizen Kane," or even the cherubic raconteur Harry Lime from "The Third Man," released just nine years before "Touch of Evil." Welles bulked up to gargantuan size, transformed into an old beat-down border cop with a bad leg and a voice that dances between a strangled growl and bemused, teasing croak. He was still a young man, just 43 at the time, but seemed decades older and thousands of miles the worse for wear.

Quinlan is a legend for his ability to solve impossible crimes and find evidence to pin on suspects. But Vargas figures out that Quinlan, along with his partner, has been planting evidence for years. Through the film's convoluted plot, Vargas confronts Quinlan, who wreaks a terrible vengeance, before enlisting the aid of Quinlan's partner, before the final showdown and gunfight.

The beginning and end of the film, both astonishingly effective, deal with a crime that has little to do with what the movie is really about. In the famous long tracking shot, a bomb is planted in the trunk of a car, which then slowly drives across the border into the U.S., while an amorous couple -- Vargas and his new bride, Susan, played by Janet Leigh -- walks nearby. The bomb explodes, killing a prominent local businessman and a floozy.

Quinlan quickly latches onto Sanchez, a Mexican who has secretly married the businessman's daughter. Vargas is sympathetic to the young man's protestations of innocence, and appalled when Quinlan plants two sticks of dynamite at the man's apartment. (He knows it's a plant because he had inadvertently knocked over the empty box in which the dynamite miraculously appears a few minutes later.)

Vargas looks up Quinlan's old case files, and learns that he's been planting evidence for years. Enraged at being challenged, Quinlan arranges for a family of Mexican drug dealers to kidnap Susan, dope her and eventually frame her for murder.

In almost a throwaway moment at the end, we learn that Sanchez has confessed to the crime, blowing up his wife's father for the fortune she stands to inherit. It throws everything that came before into a loop, since even though Quinlan was a twisted cop who planted evidence to earn convictions, he was also unnervingly accurate in those he accused. He was twisted, but not dirty; he never took a bribe or sought to profit financially from his position. He simply found those who were guilty, and used any means necessary to put them behind bars. What are we to think of a figure who routinely breaks the law in order to uphold it?

In "Touch of Evil," moral clarity is as shadowy as the inky, light-and-shadow cinematography.

A few other random observations:

There are a number of prominent actors or actresses in small roles. Marlene Deitrich (still a vision at age 57) plays Tana, the owner of a small brothel/bar, who has a mysterious romantic past with Quinlan. When he shows up after years of sobriety to drink himself to a stupor, she comments on how fat he's gotten. "I'd rather be getting fat eating your chili," Quinlan says, and clearly the culinary is not the only type of indulgence for which he years. A very young Dennis Weaver is unrecognizable as a dimwitted and loony hotel night clerk. Keenan Wynn and Zsa Zsa Gabor turn up in tiny parts, and longtime Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten makes an uncredited appearance as a cop.

The depiction of Janet Leigh as Susan is unusually bold in its portrayal of sexual and pharmacological depravity. My wife Jean and I both shook with laughter at the torpedo-like profile of her brassiere. The scenes where Susan is holed up in a motel while young gang members stalk her are filled with sexual tension, even including some proto-lesbians. The way the Mexican bad guys openly leer at her must have seemed pretty shocking in 1958.

It is ridiculous now to think of Charlton Heston, Hollywood's favorite mid-century Aryan actor, cast as a Mexican. But the physical changes via hair and makeup are pretty convincing, although Heston makes little attempt at a Latin accent. (Perhaps this was for the best.) I was amused how his wife Susan referred to Miguel Vargas as "Mike" -- one wonders if it was done to mollify 1950s audiences, or if it was a private joke between the couple.

4 stars

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