Friday, June 21, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.9: Orson Welles' Touch of Evil

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

Orson Welles spent a decade scrambling for money in Europe in order to make films before his return to Hollywood in 1958. Welles was originally only slated to play the villain in Touch of Evil, but star Charlton Heston was such a fan that he convinced Universal to give Welles a shot as a director. One by one, pieces fell into place as Welles got a chance to rewrite the script, co-star Janet Leigh signed on just to work with Welles, Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Calleia lined up to help their old friend out, and production even wrapped on time. It looked like Welles was back in business in Hollywood, ready to make more masterpieces.

Alas, it was not to be. As he had done with The Magnificent Ambersons and other films since, Welles finished a rough cut and unwisely moved on to find his next project. Universal didn’t care for Welles’ decidedly strange noir (despite loving all of the rushes), recut it to just 95 minutes, and dumped it into theatres as a B-movie. Welles wrote a 58-page memo detailing how he’d like to change it back to his version, but to no avail. But unlike Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai before it, Touch of Evil had a second chance. In 1998, using Welles’ memo as a guideline, Walter Murch, Rick Schmidlin, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, among others, put together a 112-minute cut that, while probably not exactly Welles’ vision, is the closest possible. Thank goodness: Touch of Evil is a masterpiece, one of the highlights in Welles’ great career, and a perfect cap to the classic film noir era.

Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston) is a highly respected drug enforcement in Mexico crossing the U.S. border with his new wife Susan (Leigh) when a car coming from Mexico explodes on the U.S. side. Vargas decides to assist the investigation, as he realizes the potential international debacle after a Mexican bomb exploded on U.S. territory, but he’s met with clear disdain by Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Vargas learns that Quinlan has set up the primary suspect, a Mexican, and further that Quinlan has a history of setting up men he believed to be guilty. Meanwhile, Susan is terrorized by a group of thugs led by Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a drug lord Vargas has indicted.

Every discussion of Touch of Evil starts with the now-legendary opening crane shot, a 3 ½ minute technical tour-de-force that’s at once showy and essential. Welles subscribes to Hitchcock’s saying on suspense- show the audience that there’s a bomb, but don’t let the characters know. In this case, that’s made literal- we open with a character turning the bomb to 3 minutes, placing it in the trunk of a car, and then watching as the driver, passenger, and various pedestrians remain blissfully unaware. It’s Welles the magician showing us a neat technical trick, but it’s also the most effective possible way to do the shot.

Because it’s one unbroken take, we’re hyper-aware of both the time, wondering how much time has passed, and of the space as the car goes in and out of the frame, at various points stopped by obstacles. The handful of songs playing in the streets or on the car radios give us a sense of proximity to the danger, while the people, carts, animals, and other obstacles give a sense of the seedier, poorer side of Mexico. We’re given a rather unassuming intro to our heroes, big stars Heston and Leigh, and we worry about whether or not the explosion might be near them, especially as they’re right next to the car at the border crossing. And then, Welles the magician manages to trick us anyway precisely because of how hyper-aware we are of the shot and the space- the bomb explodes off-screen, catching us, like everyone else, off-guard, as Welles switches to a shaky hand-held camera. One of the most essential changes to the 1998 restoration was to remove the opening credits over the shot and Henry Mancini’s brilliant score, which distracts in this particular scene.

It’s only one moment of technical mastery in Touch of Evil, which sees Welles getting all the tools he deserved to have on his more erratic European productions. Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty use high contrast black and white photography, which goes beautifully with the seedy California locations. Welles gets to play with spatial dynamics better than nearly any of his other films, often using quietly impressive long takes to establish the close proximity of, say, Heston to Welles in another room. One tracking shot that moves up to an empty shoebox is particularly important- what initially seems like a small detail becomes an essential piece of Quinlan’s dirty tactics. Welles is also brilliant with the power of suggestion- we don’t see the charred corpse of the bombing victims, but a woman’s confirmation of “I guess that’s my father” puts the grisly picture in my head.

Welles also uses suggestion brilliantly with Leigh’s storyline. One of the aspects restored to the 1998 version is the cross-cutting between Heston, Leigh, and Welles’ storylines, which helps establish the distance in space between Heston and Leigh. Welles uses spatial dynamics and lighting to his advantage, for much of the material with Leigh, with something as simple as men spying on her from a room next door or a flashlight watching her change, but he uses suggestion for the most shocking material in the film. As pounding music blares and a gang of menacing hoods (and a few implied lesbians) invade Leigh’s room, Welles builds up the tension by showing Leigh’s shocked face looking up as the men and women cast their glower downwards. We don’t see the implied rape and forced marijuana and heroin use (though the latter is discussed later), but the effect is still chilling.

Then again, Welles isn’t afraid to go all out into savagery when it’s required, as in the Grandi murder scene. Again, there’ s a deliberate build with lighting (which fades in and out) and close-ups focusing on Quinlan putting on gloves, but the actual fury of the murder is quite shocking for the time. Welles exaggerates Quinlan’s size, stubble, and sweat in the close-ups as he closes in on Grandi. The editing turns from long takes to frantic, dizzying montage- Grandi’s face being pushed into a bed frame, Grandi’s slipping hair piece, Welles’ big eyes, an unconscious and drugged Leigh, and finally a shot of a dead Grandi, tongue hanging out in a shot Spielberg would later lift for Jaws. It’s brutal stuff.

Credit also goes to what’s likely the best of Welles’ many make-up jobs (though Citizen Kane would certainly give it a run for its money). Contrary to popular belief, Welles wasn’t actually morbidly obese at this time, even if he had clearly grown heftier. Rather, he wore an extremely convincing padded suit, a bulbous false nose, and just about the most convincing fake jowls ever conceived for cinema. It’s less gimmickry, though, than an essential part of the story, a way to communicate how a respected cop has become a complete moral and physical mess of a man. It’s aided by one of the best performances Welles ever gave, a complicated villain who’s both an unethical racist ogre and a pitiable, sometimes even sympathetic figure, the sad piano music of Marlene Dietrich’s tavern serving as an appropriate theme for the man.

Of course, Welles isn’t the only actor at the top of his game here. The film is chock full of first-rate performances, from the wonderfully oily Tamiroff to Leigh’s strong but terrified heroine, from a spectacularly bizarre Dennis Weaver as a mentally-handicapped, terrified Night Manager of a motel to Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s adoring partner, heartbroken when he discovers the truth about the man who once saved his life. Welles’ old pal Marlene Dietrich might give the most essential supporting performance as Quinlan’s old flame and fellow sad soul, the gypsy woman Tana. No doubt the real sadness in Welles’ difficult Hollywood past informs their scenes together, which have a palpable sense of loss. Even Charlton Heston’s often-maligned turn as Vargas is quite good. The reasoning behind his casting- he’s a big star who supported Welles- seems dubious, and Welles’ justification that Vargas is an up-and-coming politician who will likely try to appeal to American allies as much as possible only goes so far. But the broadly heroic, often ferocious Heston is good enough, and often much more, as a good man pushed to the edge.

Heston and Leigh were top-billed on Touch of Evil, and indeed the two are co-leads, but make no mistake: the central figure of this film is Welles’ Quinlan. Heston’s Vargas serves as a moral compass, but Quinlan is the film’s strange, dark beating heart. Welles takes a classic noir villain (corrupt cop) and mixes him with his Shakespearean influences, turning him into a tragic figure. He’s a once great man whose hatred for the seedy underbelly of the world has clouded his judgment. It’s not that Quinlan is a crook- he laments at one point that he could have been rich off of oil fields and instead only has turkey ranch to his name. It’s that he’s willing to do unethical things in the name of doing the “right thing”. Ever since the murder of his wife (and her killer’s escape), he’s not willing to take any chances to let criminals go. He gets results- the men he frames are often guilty, as with the bombing suspect he so relentlessly bullies- but at the cost of his soul.

If his soul has already been corrupted, none of the men around him know it, but the presence of a straight-arrow like Vargas who’s more willing to question his methods sends him into his true downfall. Now he’s forced to team with real scum like Grandi, whose orchestrated terror of Susan initially has nothing to do with Quinlan. Quinlan is driven to self-pity and realization of just how he’s been corrupted- he starts to drink after more than a decade on the wagon, he laments the loss of his wife, he tries to bring Vargas down. He even emulates his wife’s killer, strangling Grandi with a stocking in order to leave no trace, and sets up Vargas’ wife as the fall-girl.

When Quinlan slips up and leaves his cane behind, it’s the classic noir mistake that clears an innocent person’s name, but this too is tragic. Quinlan is now a man with nothing left, not even Menzies, the loyal man who loved him, and the most he can get from Dietrich’s Tana is pity. It’s easy to be dazzled by the final sequence, in which Vargas trails a wire-wearing Menzies and Quinlan down an oil field and under a bridge. The scene makes perfect use of spatial dynamics, deep focus, and sound, particularly after Quinlan realizes Vargas is near. But the content is equally impressive, as Quinlan murders his most trusted friend and stumbles towards the filthy lake, trying in vain to wash blood from his hands.

Even as he threatens Vargas, he must to some degree know that he’s spent. Welles’ framing of Quinlan as an overwhelming ogre in the final confrontation is perfect- he claims that he doesn’t want to shoot Vargas in the back, but, in an excellent moment of dramatic irony, we hear a shot as Menzies, obscured by Quinlan’s gigantic frame, shoots Quinlan in the back. Quinlan’s final quip to Menzies, “that’s the second bullet that I stopped for you”, could be read as a noir version of a Shakespearean hero’s dying speech, with an all-too-late realization of his error as he stumbles backwards into the filthy water. It’s appropriate that Heston and Leigh leave the picture quietly, with Dietrich giving Quinlan an appropriately sad and ambiguous send-off. “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

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