Monday, May 24, 2010

Touch of Evil (1958)

By David N. Meyer
Maybe Charlton Heston got suckered. Maybe when he insisted that Welles be hired to direct Touch of Evil, Heston believed that he was still the star. After all, Heston’s character’s name appears on the first page of the script. Heston should have read the last page, too; Welles’ character, the immortal corrupt police Captain Hank Quinlan, grows like a tumor as the film progresses. By the end, Heston’s barely a side-show.

Paul Schrader was right - as usual- when he described Touch as the apotheosis of the hysterical period of noir. For Schrader, and here we disagree, it’s also the end of noir, period. Touch brought all noir themes to such a fever peak, and took noir visual style to such a self-referential decadent climax, that nothing could be built on the ashes of noir after Touch scorched the earth. Touch plays like the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of noir, so amped up, so baroque, so dominated by its visual/auditory decoration that the only possible next step is retrenchment, a willful return to simplicity. And, sure enough, nine years later up pops Point Blank, an aggressive exercise in the absence of rococo.

Touch, as the apotheosis of late noir must, spins the wheel of good and evil, hero and villain, so fast there’s no telling them apart. And when there is, the villain’s much more compelling and worthy of compassion. Heston, the ostensive hero, proves a whining complainer who never commits a heroic act. He runs around the whole picture in ridiculous brown-face (he’s supposed to be Mexican, but nobody else rocks all that pancake) asking after his wife, ignoring her obvious peril, and carrying a bugging device while somebody else does the dirty work. Heston’s character watches the whole film happen, and vanishes, unlamented, before the coda. Like Roger Daltrey or Greg Allman (when Duane and Berry Oakley were still alive), Heston’s a journeyman surrounded by genius. Unlike those two, he never figures out how to hold his own. Seminal rock scholar Greil Marcus described early Howling Wolf records as “war”, and details how Wolf’s fiendishly talented sidemen battled for every molecule of space while always respecting the structure of the song. Welles’ coterie of over the hill, underappreciated character actors battle as strenuously for their screen time, for their awkward niches in Welles’ highly composed, disordered frames, and well they better. Their dialogue whooshes by as fast as one of DP Russell Metty’s whip-pans, and only the strong survive. Heston seems dazed when he shares an overcrowded shot with these craggy, determined troopers. He draws a deep breath to declaim all Moses-like and bam! The scene’s over and four other guys - each spitting half a sentence of linguistic shrapnel - have advanced the plot before Heston got a word in edgewise.

Meanwhile, Welles’ Quinlan - obese, waddling, grumbling half to himself, peering myopically through not world-weary but world-defeated eyes - commits murder with his hands right in front of us, and he’s the most sympathetic character in the picture! Welles paints a brutal self-portrait. The wreckage of his youth and handsomeness he presents as the wages of Quinlan’s and his own life of corruption. Though Welles’ always possessed a dancer’s grace, here he wallows in a fat man’s clumsiness, stumbling over his own feet with a precisely honed expression of befuddled humiliation. Is this me, he sputters - as he falls, as a former lover dismisses him, as those who cringed for years now face up to him - powerless before my own ruin, my jowly, sweaty, defeated face hanging out for all to see? Can this be me?

It’s a courageous embrace of the horrors of middle age and physical degradation, even more committed and shameless than Gloria Swanson’s in Sunset Boulevard. (Or maybe I should say: more than Buster Keaton’s in Sunset Boulevard.) How it serves Welles, beyond immersion in character, is to suggest that the unrelenting presentation of self-loathing will somehow bring catharsis from it. The moral wreckage onscreen belongs to Captain Quinlan; the physical wreckage is Welles’ alone. He flickers back and forth between these identities. The Sheriff’s rue and ruin generate compassion; Welles’ willingness to showcase his physical damnation provides the horror.

And so, hysterical period noir-style, Heston’s a hapless do-gooder, who gapes in outrage like a maiden aunt in Jane Austen, and gets elbowed aside for Welles’ walking lesson in reaping what one sows. Welles, as ever, must have known what he was doing. His picture starred two of the least convincing or sympathetic actors of that time. Neither Heston nor Leigh ever became anyone or anything other than themselves on screen. Janet Leigh is simply never believable. Even in the famed opening shot (there, I mentioned it; are you happy now?), she indicates left and right, never in the moment for a moment. It’s tough to care about her jeopardy; are we supposed to regard her as a spoiled brat whom it’s fun to torture? Welles seems to. His pan up her lingerie-clad body is so the opposite of sexy it’s positively creepy. With Leigh’s layers of makeup and blank face, those long legs and white-lace honeymoon outfit hold no more allure than Marie Windsor’s in Kubrick’s The Killing. At least Windsor was predatory. Leigh’s nothing at all, just someone on the set waiting for the director to tell her what to do next so she can half-pretend to do it.

Unlike any other woman in any Welles’ picture, Leigh gets acted upon. She has no will to impose on anybody. Welles torments her pretty good, too. She’s the essence of middle-class propriety thrust into the world of lower-class kicks and machinations, and everyone finds her pretensions to civilization equally irritating. There’s one odd, quite relenting note amidst all the unrelenting corruption. In the aftermath, characters inform us - in a nearly indecipherable mumble-mouthed sound bite - that Leigh never inhaled any of the marijuana around her, and that the injection forced upon her contained not the dread heroin, but the “harmless truth stuff”: sodium pentothal. That comes as a real letdown, given that two scary leather-dykes told the hopped-up Pachuco hopheads who kidnapped Leigh that they “wanted to watch.” Then someone says “Hold her legs,” and Leigh is borne up into what we assume, with our prurient little minds, to be a maelstrom of rapine and narcotics. Later we are told it was all for show. What a gyp!

Not that things would be more fun if she’d been shot full of scag and repeatedly violated. It’s that after showing Leigh kidnapped, mauled, molested, hypo’d against her will, transported unknowingly to a flea-bag hotel, awakening face to face with a recently strangled person, arrested for drug and murder charges and tossed into a border-town cell, Welles attempts to dismiss any possible damage to her with a one-sentence ‘Whew, glad that worked out okay!’ explanation. Seems very un-Dude of the director not to showcase more misery; Rita Hayworth didn’t get off so easy in Lady From Shanghai, that’s for sure. While the cheery brush-off might be s sop to the censors, it plays as Welles’ genuine lack of interest in Leigh’s character.

Welles demonstrates even less interest in what some might refer to as ‘plot.’ Events do unfold in a sequence, some drawn way out beyond the time they require and some whizzing by too fast to register. And there is some vague connection between events early in the picture and later. Story is secondary. Primary is Welles moving through the film like an ever-approaching elephant, thompsaurus footsteps sounding louder and louder as he increasingly dominates every frame. Welles give us tiny glimpses into Quinlan’s past, his excessively mourned dead wife whom maybe he murdered, all the dull injustice of all the innocents he framed, all the dues that he paid in service of…what? Heston’s crusading horseshit gets on Quinlan’s nerves, and Quinlan stops caring about pretending not be evil or that his evil made one bit of difference. There’s no kicks in it anymore, and when Marlene Dietrich gives him the bad news, Quinlan doesn’t bother to argue.

“Never mind the story,” Godard said wisely, “What’s the film about?” There, Touch of Evil puzzles. Pauline Kael said, presciently, of Godard, that his gifts did not run to making masterpieces. But Welles’ gifts did, and Touch is undoubtedly one, but a masterpiece of what? The bravura framing, camera-movement and composition astonishes frame after frame after frame. The performances that matter could hardly be better, in a similarly bravura style, half naturalism, half theatrical grandstanding - the usual mode of acting in a Welles’ picture. There are unforgettable tableaux, shots that have kept film students (and film professors) in rapture class after class for fifty two years, perfectly synchronized editing between insane camera-moves that remains the finest such editing attempted (and that pre-figures similar moves/edits, shockingly similar moves, in Fellini’s 8 ½.) and yet…

This masterpiece plays at a distance, a hard shiny object that never embraces, or maybe never shows an embraceable flaw. After his well-chronicled ruination(s), Welles is left with skill --tons of it-- but not what he really wanted, whatever that might have been: eternal youth, Rita Hayworth, stardom, freedom from his own demons, the chance to make the pictures he really wanted to make. Is that why Touch of Evil seems somehow empty? Welles lost hope in some fundamental way and what remains is only technique. The perfection of all those whip-pans, off-angle tilts, close-ups packed with Breugel-like faces and machine-gun dialogue is just plain exhausting. Every scene, every moment of dialogue requires instant translation in the brain, an instant deconstruct to understand what happened and how one half-sentence informs what comes next. The ways in which Leigh gets tortured torture the viewer too, and the ominous swinging lights and oppressive music oppress not only the characters.

Every possible binary of supposedly opposing forces - good/evil, hero/villain, justice/injustice, truth/lies, love/hate -is thoroughly muddled. Almost no middle ground exists. How could it? This is the apotheosis of hysterical-period late noir. The only clearly demarcated empty space stands between old age and youth. Heston and Leigh are the only young adults in the film, and they’re utterly ineffectual, caught between the entrenched aged order and the anarchy of youth. Everyone else is burnt out, compromised and corroded with regret or young, dumb and full of Maryjane. There’s physical degradation or physical perfection; ten year out-of-date baggy-ass suits with dumb-ass fedoras or skin-tight leather jackets with duck’s-ass haircuts.

What is Welles presenting? His own epitaph, it feels like, his own bottomless vault of regret. He might ache, looking out of his own ruined carcass, to reclaim the promise of his future. But he already knows that it’s all used up.

David N Meyer is the author of Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music


  1. Terrific writeup!!!

    I agree, Touch of Evil, despite a few of its shortfalls, remains one of the greatest works in the domain of film noirs. Brutal, baroque & brilliant.

    Charlton Heston certainly was the weakest link in the film. The ludicrous brown face smacked of racism. Never saw a popular star downgrade himself so much. And where Heston unworthy of attention, Orson Welles, as the obese & gleefully corrupt cop, was absolutely riveting. What a memorable performance. Somehow Welles' role here often reminds me of the pub owner's role in Night & the City.

  2. Give that man a stogie — that's one hell of an essay.

  3. Great critique, really enjoyed reading it.

    Bruce T.

  4. thanks so much. I really enjoyed your comments. They make me want to see the film once more.

  5. A great overview of a great film.
    What more is there to say ?

  6. Thank you, wonderful essay, & I just love this film. Welles' best?

  7. Brilliant film! maybe one of the greatest noir ever made! Welles made a film that re - creates film noira, with fantastic photography and an absolutely genious shots! Mancini also made a great job with his music! Your work on films is excellent my friend! Keep up the good work!

  8. Back in the early 70's a new channel 31 out of Sacramento came on the air. The first couple of months they would repeat the same
    films over & over including Touch Of Evil (Grave Of The Vampire w/ William Smith is the only other one i remember). Well this allow numerous viewings of Touch of Evil where i was able to immerse myself in the dark Dream Noir visuals!


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