Saturday, 10 February 2007

Touch of Evil (US, 1958, Orson Welles)

“Read my future”
“You haven’t got any”
“What do you mean?”
“Your future is all used up”

Marlene Dietrich’s psychic informs Orson Welles’ corrupt cop that time has caught up with him, but this conversation becomes even more significant when we consider ‘Touch of Evil’ in the context of Welles’ directorial career. This was the last film he directed in Hollywood, which famously came about purely by accident (Charlton Heston only agreed to play Mike Vargas because he assumed Welles was directing as well as starring), but was then mutilated and re-shot by studio executives afterwards, much as ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was. This version of ‘Touch of Evil’ was the remastered version put together in the late 1990s, having followed Welles’ memo to the studio with suggested changes.

‘Touch of Evil’ begins with one of the most stunning opening sequences in film history; a single take lasting several minutes. A rich gentleman who has just picked up a young woman crosses the Mexican-American border. Unknown to him, a bomb has been placed in his car. Whilst he drives, his companion complains of a ‘ticking’ noise, though both he and patrol officers ignore her protestations. The bomb naturally explodes, killing the gentleman and his companion. Since the offence occurred on both Mexican and American soil, both Mike Vargas and Hank Quinlan (played by Welles) claim jurisdiction for the case. Naturally these men are set up as opposites; Vargas the honest and fair narcotics officer, Quinlan the sheriff content to plant evidence when his ‘intuition’ tells him a suspect is guilty. When Vargas suspects Quinlan of framing a Mexican boy for the causing the explosion, he becomes torn between protecting his wife and bringing Quinlan to justice. Vargas in turn tries to ask Quinlan’s colleagues to betray him as the murder then becomes something of a Macguffin as the film then unfolds into a battle between the two police officers.

Welles populates the film with a series of grotesque characters. Quinlan is literally larger than life; padding was added to Welles’ already grand figure, whilst he is usually shot from low angles to accentuate his size. When he re-introduces himself to Marlene Dietrich (whom he once knew, but she fails to recognise him), she declares “You’re a mess, honey”. Numerous supporting characters are equally odd or unhinged, such as Akim Tamiroff’s local hoodlum Joe Grandi (who wears a ridiculous toupee), Dennis Weaver’s extremely nervous motel owner (an inspiration for Anthony Perkins in ‘Psycho’), and Mercedes McCambridge’s leather clad lesbian.

Quinlan is finally betrayed by his until then faithful deputy Menzies, who finds Quinlan’s cane at the scene of Grandi’s murder (the hotel room has a sign on the door asking “Have you forgotten anything?”), which was supposed to be pinned upon Vargas’s wife. Not that ‘Touch of Evil’ seeks to resole itself morally or justly. Quinlan’s instinct about Sanchez’s guilt is later proved correct, as the boy confesses after Quinlan’s death. Quinlan maintained that he was only ‘aiding justice’ and that he framed the guilty where evidence was lacking. Vargas is perhaps shown to be more interested in bringing down Quinlan than looking after his wife, who is preyed upon by several members of the Grandi family (several members of which have been imprisoned because of Vargas). Whilst the film earlier tried to establish these characters are corrupt and righteous, there is perhaps little between them in actual fact. Quinlan’s character is best summarised by the contradictory eulogies he receives; that he was a “great detective, but a lousy cop” and that he was “some kind of man”.

The remainder of Welles’ career was spent as an actor for hire, in order to fund the projects he wished to direct. He never worked in Hollywood again, but ‘Touch of Evil’ remains a tremendous signing off for one of the most interesting and gifted film making talents ever. Along with ‘The Lady of Shanghai’, Welles proved that he could take the most basic of source materials (which he often barely read or was usually unfaithful to) and transform them from humble origins to great cinematic art, and ‘Touch of Evil’ remains at least the equal of any of his previous achievements; perhaps even his finest.

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