Some kind of a man: “Touch of Evil” (1958)

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By Scott Ross

Whom the gods would destroy they first make wildly successful. For all his astonishing early success in the theatre and on radio — and despite his self-evident greatness as a filmmaker — Orson Welles was never able to create a popular movie, usually through no fault of his own. Touch in Evil is a case in point: What should have been at the very least a minor hit never really had a hope, re-edited (and, to a degree, re-shot) as it was by hacks and unceremoniously dumped onto the “B” market by Universal when the studio apparently lost all faith in the picture. Welles, having returned from self-exile in Europe, and making waves in other people’s pictures (The Long, Hot Summer and Huston’s Moby-Dick) and television shows (he was a memorable guest on I Love Lucy) was primed for a chance at the brass ring, and even in a form both truncated and fattened by others, Touch of Evil should, ideally, have been the carousel horse he needed to reach it. The source, a Whit Masterson* mystery called Badge of Evil, is mildly diverting but not especially resonant, or even particularly memorable. (I had to read a precis to even recall the plot.) But as Welles re-shaped and re-fashioned it, this inconsequential pulp material becomes something dark, disturbing and, yes, even profound.

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It looks unlike any other director’s work, and sounds unlike any other’s. I do not mean the overlapping dialogue or the fealty to ambient sound, although both are hallmarks of Welles, but the shape and flavor of his dialogue, as when Charlton Heston’s “Mike” Vargas says to Welles’ corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” (He should have lived to see how well that has worked out in America.) Far more than things like the somewhat showy opening sequence, the characteristic shadows or the menacing camera angles, what distinguishes this as a Welles picture are its concerns, and the means by which the filmmaker explicates, and expounds on, them. In Badge of Evil, an assistant D.A. ponders a killing and a seemingly false confession, and his Latin wife is kidnapped, drugged and framed by his enemies. There’s also a climax involving a hidden wire recorder and a cop called Quinlan who is at the same time a thug, a dupe and a bit of a dope. The basic elements are there, but arranged conventionally. Welles, by making the suspicious municipal attorney (Heston) a Mexican with a Caucasian wife (Janet Leigh), gets instantly to the heart of American racism, which traditionally has looked with horror on dusky bucks squiring lily-white does; he then further compounds this sense of unease by having Quinlan harass and then arrest a young Mexican suspect (Victor Millan), who is later proven to be guilty. My revealing that is not exactly a spoiler; with Welles, narrative detail is scarcely the point. It is less important that the boy is guilty than that he was framed to begin with, and that in trying to coerce from Quinlan a confession for the frame-up Vargas descends to the worst sort of legal maneuvering, convincing Quinlan’s hero-worshiping partner (Joseph Calleia) to betray the man electronically. And Vargas quite literally descends, hiding under a bridge and sloshing through oily, trash-laden waters as he follows his quarry. Welles’ sympathies as a writer-director are divided: Vargas is right… but so is Quinlan. And each is equally wrong. As Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “I don’t make those judgments, ever, about people in my pictures.” He didn’t paint Charles Foster Kane with a black-tarred brush either. Much more than “arty” camera angles and creative editing, it’s that very ambiguity, which seems to upset many literal people, that ultimately make Welles’ movies so exhilarating. As Marlene Dietrich’s Tana observes of Quinlan at the end of the picture, “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

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The preferred version of Touch of Evil is the one re-edited by Walter Murch in 1998 and based largely on a 58-page memo Welles famously prepared when Universal showed him their edit… although even this edition contains some footage Welles did not shoot but which Murch needed for continuity. Appropriately for a man who first made his mark as a sound editor, Murch’s great contribution to the restoration was his removing Henry Mancini’s conventional (albeit effective) “thriller” scoring from the opening sequence in favor of the more ambient sound Welles imagined, and which also contained snippets of several Mancini rock and jazz pieces, heard as they would be if an automobile was cruising a border-town’s streets and passing its many clip-joints. (Murch also took the distracting credits off the sequence and placed them at the end of the picture.) That opening, so beloved of cineastes, consisting as it does of three and a half unbroken minutes of tracking shot, while admittedly a tour de force, is to me far less impressive than the much longer, more complex, and more beautifully controlled, scene in the apartment of the accused which is also without a cut and twice as long.† Yet because it is less flashy, it goes unnoticed by most image-junkies and Scorsese acolytes. (Or am I being redundant?) Only once does Welles, who hated symbols, opt for an obvious metaphor, when the crippled, ageing, bibulous and nearly played-out Quinlan is glimpsed beneath a mounted bull’s head decorated with picadors’ lances. As Welles noted to Bogdanovich of a moment in his Othello involving Iago, “It’s instant metaphor, like instant coffee.” And we all know what instant coffee is good for.

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Those who like to pretend, for their own perverse reasons, that Welles was no writer (by which accusation I presume they mean Herman Mankiewiciz didn’t just write Citizen Kane but everything else) never get what an original dramatic voice he had. There is nothing, but nothing, in the Masterson book that corresponds to Vargas’ American wife or to the two-bit gangster Grandi who menaces her, and certainly no dialogue that rivals theirs. Although frightened of this absurd little toupée-sporting hoodlum, she tells him he’s seen too many gangster movies, and he has. Welles said he got that notion from having encountered gangsters, whom he found both menacing and funny, as Grandi is. And perhaps no one could have embodied those seeming contradictions better than the splendid Akim Tamiroff, whose scenes in Touch of Evil lift the picture into a realm it wouldn’t achieve without him, just as he lifted Welles’ Mr. Arkadin and as Dennis Weaver raises the role of the terrified motel night manager here into another form of reality. Leigh somehow managed to appear in a trio of indelible roles in important pictures during this period, and to enrich all three beyond the telling. (The others are The Manchurian Candidate and Psycho.) Her armor includes sex, wit, understanding, a sharpness that camouflages but does not obscure her vulnerability, and the ability to move the viewer unexpectedly. She’d have been the ideal leading lady for Howard Hawks, and I’ve often wondered why he never cast her in anything.

Heston is rather good, although he more or less eschews any sort of accent. I remember being infuriated by the scene in Tim Burton’s appallingly overrated Ed Wood in which Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles (although voiced by Maurice LeMarche) complains bitterly of having to use the actor in his picture, which struck me then and strikes me now as a bit of ignorant snark by the screenwriters,‡ trendily directed toward an admittedly vulnerable target. Whether the story Welles later told of Heston’s inadvertently getting him the job of directing Touch of Evil is true or not — he was allegedly engaged to write and appear in it, until the actor, misunderstanding, said he would be honored to be in anything Orson Welles directed — Welles had nothing but praise for Heston subsequently. Well, what can one expect of people who deify a sub-nonentity like Ed Wood for being utterly without talent and trying anyway?

Welles, who gave a funny mock-Method performance for Martin Ritt in The Long, Hot Summer, blustering in mumbles, if I may be permitted an oxymoron, does something similar here, but to better effect because the character of Quinlan is such a human wreck, and so used to getting his way, he no longer needs to speak distinctly. Viewers of the movie today probably assume that Quinlan’s massive body was simply Welles’ usual heft, but he was well padded in face and physique. (He later told Bogdanovich a very funny anecdote about showing up at a Hollywood party before taking off his makeup and being greeted by old friends with, “Hi, Orson, you’re lookin’ great!”) Despite its obviousness, the metaphor of the bull is not inapt; although hobbled by a limp and too much candy-induced fat, there is still power in Hank Quinlan that goes well beyond the official badge of his office. You can imagine the force he’d been, just as you occasionally catch a glimpse of the rogue who once captured Tana’s heart — or who shared her bed, in any case.

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Although they had relaxed considerably between Welles’ exit to Europe in the late ’40s and his return a decade later, things were hardly free and open in America yet. The Catholic-controlled Production Code was still fully in place, if slightly more flexible than it had been, and it’s rather astonishing how much Welles got away with here, from Janet Leigh’s firmly pointed slip to the butch Lesbian played by a disguised Mercedes McCambridge (“I want to watch…”) to the implications of gang-rape by Grandi’s young hoods at the motel, even if what transpires is an only slightly less traumatizing introduction of narcotics. When Hank visits Tana’s establishment across the Mexican border, the only assumption we can make is that it’s a house of prostitution, lending a frisson of the forbidden to this exchange between the two:

Quinlan: Well, when this case is over, I’ll come around some night and sample some
of 
your chili.
Tana: Better be careful. May be too hot for you.

That Dietrich delivers that line with such bland nonchalance I suppose mitigates the salaciousness of it, but any reasonably intelligent adolescent can read between those lines.

It goes without saying that Tana does not exist in Badge of Evil, and, Welles maintained, not in the original script he adapted. “I only thought up the character,” he told Bogdanovich, “if I could get Marlene. Otherwise, no such character, no such scenes.” Bogdanovich feels Dietrich brings a quality to the picture that is “absolutely cosmic,” that “she becomes a kind of mythic figure in the film,” and it’s hard to disagree. The presence of Tana reminds us that Quinlan, so easily pegged as a villain and (as she later notes) “a lousy cop,” is human, and once mattered to someone. But beyond that, Dietrich almost seems to be summing up everything she’s ever done or been on the screen, from Morocco to Witness for the Prosecution: The cool sultriness, the misterioso, the Continental wisdom, and the sexiness that emanates from her seemingly without effort. When she looks at Quinlan’s floating body at the end, Dietrich’s eyes are both expressive and unreadable, rendering those final lines of hers as more than an epitaph for a movie corpse: They become seeds of wisdom from the earth mother.

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Touch of Evil also benefits from Welles’ appreciation of old actors and old friends, and from his ability to spot something untouched in younger performers. His use of Joseph Calleia, for example, and of Ray Collins (as the D.A.) and Joseph Cotten (as the coroner, although at least one of his lines — “Now you could strain him through a sieve” — was dubbed by Welles) but most especially in his casting of Weaver as the motel night manager who is not merely nervous but psychotic. It’s the sort of role, at that time, perhaps only Welles could have envisioned, and he lets Weaver run with it.

There’s probably a great deal more I might say, about Russell Metty’s striking black-and-white cinematography and Mancini’s effective score, which reaches a kind of glory with his pianola theme for Dietrich. But ultimately it’s Orson’s show, and that either sells it for you, or sends you packing. I will, however, say this: Welles’ last studio picture as a writer-director looks better with every passing year.

If the elegant hacks whose offerings currently hold sway at the multiplexes had the capacity for embarrassment, Touch of Evil would thoroughly shame them.



“Whit Masterson” was the pen-name of Robert Allison “Bob” Wade and H. Bill Miller and H. Bill Miller. Their second best-remembered title? Kitten with a Whip.

† There are actually two long sequences done in single takes, divided by a cutaway to another set of necessary scenes.

‡ Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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