14 October, 2016
I’ve been looking forward to this one -- and dreading it -- for some time. Both for the same reasons. It’s the same reaction I had when beginning Tyrone Power’s Witness For The Prosecution (1957); another big one. ‘Cause this is Janet Leigh in arguably her best performance. This is Charlton Heston (whose name, yes, always sounds like he’s speaking as Moses). This is Charlton Heston playing a Mexican and everything that’s been said about that. This is Marlene Dietrich (again)! And Russell Metty and Henry Mancini! This is the film with the famous three-and-a-half-minute opening shot. This is the film that was rebuilt in ‘98 from a 58-page memo. And, yes, this is the first film in these Top 5s from -- Starring & Written by & Directed by -- Orson Welles.
No, this one isn’t going to be easy. But, like all the rest, it sure is going to be fun.
I say this often, but there’s a lot out there written about x and y that you don’t need me regurgitating. Well, that’s not been more true -- certainly in these Top 5s -- than this film and its Writer-Director. If you want to read more about Mr. Welles and his Movies, go straight to the top: Peter Bogdanovich’s Interview Book (Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum) This Is Orson Welles (1992) and Simon Callow’s three -- rumored four -- volume Orson Welles (1995, 2006 & 2015). These two gentlemen are the best archivists we have; and not just archivists, for Welles & Bogdanovich were indeed friends (at one point living together).
For today, we’ll talk Touch Of Evil as best I can; with, hopefully, a few new insights. To start? How about at the beginning, from Mr. Welles himself:
"I had just acted in the Jeff Chandler Western for Universal [Man In The Shadow (1957)] and they sent me another script -- a very bad one that took place in San Diego, with a crooked detective in it. And they said, 'Do you want to play it?' I said, 'Maybe,' and I was still wondering whether I could afford not to make it when they called up Chuck Heston and said, 'Here’s a script -- we’d like you to read it. We have Welles.' And he misunderstood them and said, 'Well, any picture that Welles directs, I’ll make.' So they got back on the phone quick and said to me, 'Do you want to direct it?' And I said, 'Yes, if I can rewrite it.' Well, they said they’d let me do that if I wouldn’t get paid as a director or a writer -- just my original salary as an actor. So I had about three and a half weeks to go before it began, and I locked myself up with four secretaries and wrote an entirely new story and script."
Touch Of Evil (1958)
w Orson Welles
based on the Novel Badge Of Evil by Whit Masterson
d Orson Welles
To begin, let’s talk briefly about the ’98 Recut. Because, if nothing else, I hope these Top 5s entice you to visit or revisit these films. Ready for this one? Please be sure it’s that Recut, as close to Welles’ vision as we can infer. Like Criterion’s impressive Mr. Arkadin from 2006, the Touch Of Evil Blu Ray includes three versions of the film: the Pre-Release, Theatrical Release and ’98 Recut (supervised by legend-in-his-own-time Walter Murch). Is it exactly as Welles intended? I don’t know I’d say that if Welles himself supervised [and there’s an argument to be made for and against the Blu Ray’s Aspect Ratio of 1.78 -- intended 1.85 in 1958? -- versus Welles’ preferred 1.33 ... but I’ll leave that for another day]. I believe Murch & Co’s work indeed represents Welles’ intent and is the best version we should be watching.
For no other reason than the famous opening shot which strips the titles and rebuilds the music as we travel with the car / meet The Vargases. Stripping the titles was an easy choice. We know Welles never intended for opening titles, but why? This is 1958, remember. Titles open movies. Well, they weren’t, per se, paid attention to; at least not what was happening behind them. “Titles are on? Okay, it’s time to get settled. Titles have finished? Okay, I should start paying attention.” Not so with our film today where the whole world is setup in those three-and-a-half minutes. Not to mention -- like Mr. Hitchcock’s famous “bomb under the tea table” analogy -- not having titles here focuses us on that world. And the music? Instead of the (admittedly appropriate) Jazz, we’re now given some cinéma vérité: the car radio, music coming out of clubs as we pass, even silence; all specifically punctuating the picture: the bomb, the car, the couple in the car, The Vargases as they walk with it, around it, stopping at the border gate, the crowd there. Without titles and without typical Score, we’re immersed in those three-and-a-half minutes. Waiting for the bomb to blow.
Ideally not even thinking it’s one single shot (and more on that later).
We open on the bomb. It’s the first shot, close up, can’t miss it. That’s significant not just because it starts “a fun opening scene” but because everything to follow is a bomb waiting to blow. The town, the motel, their characters, every person, every thing, it’s all a lit fuse; yes, even The Vargases, but particularly Quinlan who, at the center, is both Protagonist and Antagonist. He doesn’t place the bomb (or want it to have gone off), nor is he the one we’re rooting for, but he’s key to almost everything that happens; pushing the plot as well as being pushed by it.
Which is interesting because we’re dealing with two stories. The first is The Vargases being on their honeymoon where he’s -- and therefore she’s -- the target of The Grandi Crime Family. When they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, the second story -- the murder of the couple in the car (and I’m not getting into plot much more than this) -- explodes in front of them. Enter Quinlan who, only focused on the second, can’t help but be pulled into the first -- because of Mike Vargas and then, sensing an aid in his plight, Grandi -- and we find ourselves in the midst of some truly glorious Melodrama; too often overlooked in this “Noir” (and more on that later too).
There’s the old adage in writing that you must build to a suprising and satisfying conclusion. Not or, and. (And do you know how hard that is?) Well, Touch Of Evil does it better than most. At this point in what’s left of his life, Quinlan is a man obsessed with winning and losing. That’s it. He isn’t obsessed with booze or candy bars or even Tana’s chili; all triggers -- even crutches -- sure, but no longer obsessions. (Even his surface racism is only that, an attack on Vargas the opponent, not Vargas the Mexican ... but that’s for a much longer article.) All Quinlan has left now is the game which he must win or he loses a little more of himself. Once a good cop, probably a great one, he’s now what’s left of the job when all its humanity is gone. So with our world waiting to blow, who ultimately lights the fuse? Menzies. Why? Because it must affect Quinlan as personally as possible. [I love the shot of Quinlan rising in Tana’s and there’s the bull on the wall with its banderillas; a bit on the nose -- that’s Quinlan now, only he doesn’t know it yet (or won’t accept it yet) -- but what a great image.] Menzies’ turn of conscience -- turning on his partner, his only friend -- is both surprising and satisfying. The fuse lit from our very first image has run its course straight into … well, some kind of man.
Let’s stay with the opening of the movie for a bit as we introduce our leading lady. I don’t think I’m overselling it at all when I say Janet Leigh as Suzie Vargas is some of her best work. It should come as no surprise that a lead character is our avatar in the movie; that is, we the audience, by proxy, live the adventure with them. And we’re very much Suzie Vargas here. When we meet her she’s a literal tourist, so as we look in on this world, we see it through its only outsider. Of all the characters in this Melodrama, she’s the only one that doesn’t belong. She isn’t naïve or better-than -- she has a great spark to her -- but she’s nonetheless different from this town, its characters. The personification of “outside looking in.”
What makes Suzie Vargas standout? For me, it’s Janet Leigh’s transcending what could easily be just a “damsel in distress” role: how she handles the explosion right in front of her; significantly how she handles her husband leaving her to deal with it, including having to cross back across the border on her own to wait for him. For how long? She doesn’t know and goes anyway; is fine going anyway. And, sure, a lot’s been said about how he treats her thoughout: “Why the hell would he keep abandoning her?” Well -- for me -- the answer is in how Leigh plays her. I don’t think she feels abandoned. She’s perfectly okay by herself. And when Grandi first confronts her -- I think this is a character defining moment -- she’s not pushed-over at all but quips that great, defiant “Yeah” right back at him. As much as Suzie Vargas may be regulated to a “damsel” role, Janet Leigh regularly fights her way well passed it.
Before we move on from the opening, a few asides. Re the explosion and its aftermath, why is the fountain on fire? I mean aside from looking great. Okay, moving on from that. Did you notice the Mercury Theatre Regulars popping up? Ray Collins as The District Attorney and Joseph Cotten as The Coroner. And then Akim Tamiroff (Grandi here) would later do The Trial (1962). And -- not a Mercury Regular but -- there’s Zsa Zsa Gabor as The Strip Club Owner (with her sister Eva as One Of The Strippers). And there’s been a long-standing rumor that none other than Errol Flynn lurks in the background of a shot. True? I’ve never spotted him, though we know he and Welles were friends; the yacht in The Lady From Shanghai was Flynn’s own Zaca. And the fictional Mexican town of Los Robles? All the exteriors were shot in Los Angeles’ own Venice (with a lot of great 1957 footage of the famous beach town).
Staying on our leading lady for a bit, let’s move to The Mirador where it’s tough not to notice Miss Leigh’s bad luck with motels (see, I almost mentioned The Shower Movie again). And here’s where we the audience take a detour as well. This is an odd section of the picture mostly because of how much time Welles spends on it. When you take into account how little time Welles had to write the Script -- less than a month, remember -- it’s a great way to kill fifteen minutes (and, plot-wise, justifiably). But I think it goes to the Texture of the thing. ‘Cause if there’s one thing this movie exudes it’s that: texture of Plot, texture of Character, of Camera Movement, of Lighting (and those last two indeed different). And everything at the motel drips it (including the almost over-the-top Dennis Weaver but he does it so well).
And look at everything Miss Leigh does here. Again, I don’t think Suzie Vargas feels abandoned, or in very much danger. She really does just want to get some sleep. She’s tired and annoyed and getting angry at it all but still never a damsel. In fact it takes a Rape to overpower her. And not just from Pancho (Valentin deVargas) -- she’d already bettered him back in town -- but a Gang. It’s horrific, no question -- especially with Mercedes McCambridge’s cold “I wanna watch” -- but it also cements Leigh’s incredibly strong portrayal: what it takes to bring her down. And then she wakes up in the hotel back in town to Grandi’s eyes and rushes onto the fire escape; not an escape at all given she’s still in that town, eventually crumbling in the jail cell on the trumped-up charge. Still she comes out fighting. There’s the shot of her in the car at the end and we know she’ll be okay. And I don’t think it’s “a Hollywood ending.” For my money, when she finally gets a good night’s sleep, her husband and that upcoming trial are the least of Grandi’s problems …
Welles and Bogdonavich talk about shooting in The Motel in This Is Orson Welles --
"Bogdonavich: How was Janet Leigh?
"Welles: Wonderful. And I gave her a very rough time, because she had to change her hairdo back and forth all the time, not knowing why. We were shooting forty and fifty setups a day, and she never knew where she was in the plot. I just said, 'The hair down. The hair up. Go to the window.' -- you know -- and she was right there with me. Really wonderful. Because we made it very quickly.
"Bogdonavich: You were shooting it out of sequence.
"Welles: Not just that -- of course, you have to -- but --
"Bogdonavich: You shoot for the way the lighting is.
"Welles: Have to."
Touch Of Evil is widely considered one of the greatest Noirs ever made, except that it isn’t. Isn’t great? No, it’s decidedly that; in fact, this is a movie I actually think improves the more you see it. But Noir? Sorry, I can’t call it that. Without getting too far down a rabbit hole, I’ll say the Noir is Out Of The Past (1947). And for a Neo Noir? Blade Runner (and I’ll let you deduce what you want from both of those). But our film today? Plot, Character, Lighting, it’s all close, but I don’t believe it fits the term. The easiest, quickest “out” is there isn’t a Femme Fatale, but there’s other stuff too (and if we continue we’ll only get deeper down the rabbit hole). So what would I call it? What I have been; what Welles himself called it: Melodrama. (And I use that term with the respect it deserves: like a Rom Com, only bad versions of Genre deserve the negativity of its colloquial.)
Walter Murch wrote of his ’98 Recut, “Forty years ago, in the spring of 1958, Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil was released by Universal as a B Picture, the second half of a double bill. (The A Picture was Female Animal, a now-forgotten vehicle for Hedy Lamarr.) Neither picture attracted much attention, although some reviewers were intrigued by Welles’ first studio work in ten years. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a commercial and critical disappointment, and Welles -- only 43 at the time -- returned to Europe and never made another feature for Hollywood. Thus a chapter in Welles’ life that had opened in 1941 with perhaps the biggest bang in cinema history, Citizen Kane, ended nearly twenty years later with Marlene Dietrich’s whispered ‘Adios,’ the final word in Touch of Evil.”
And, no, not the worst end in the world.
For our end today, I’ll try something of a bookend. We opened with what everyone talks about when talking about this picture: the opening shot. But there’s another in the film that’s even more impressive: also a single take, and two minutes longer. Yes, the scene in the apartment that introduces Sanchez and the planting of the evidence. It’s five-and-a-half minutes. And note the number of people in it. The amount of dialogue. And that they move throughout the apartment, the camera moving with them; the lighting involved, both technically and creatively, with kudos indeed to Russell Metty [who’d also shot Welles’ The Stranger (1946)]. I hope you appreciate this scene. For me -- for story, performance, the technical achievement, all of it -- it’s really the scene of the picture.
As gregarious a talker as he was, it was tough, believe it or not, to get Welles to talk about his own work. Questions abound; perhaps the biggest is, still, “What was lost from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)?” Even Bogdonavich had to prod him, and they were indeed friends. Most of the time Welles stood by his mantra of Art explaining the life of a Man, never the contrary. Still we ask, as we must. So today we’ll end as we began, from the man himself; this again from This Is Orson Welles --
"Bogdonavich [talking about The Lady From Shanghai]: Probably the slowest dolly shot I’ve ever seen takes place when Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane are sitting in a corridor before the trial. I had to look at the edges of the screen to see if it was really moving.
"Welles: That doesn’t speak well for the film, when you start studying the edges of the screen.
"Bogdonavich: People sometimes look at your films and say, 'God what an insane great shot.' But when I’ve expressed something like that to you, your blank look shows me that clearly to you the shot was normal -- or, rather, not unusual -- simply the way you saw it.
"Welles: I like it when you answer your own questions."