TOUCH OF EVIL: Welles’ Greatest Masterpiece
July 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
‘He was some kind of a man’. When the cheroot-smoking, world-weary Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) delivers this famous epitaph at the end of Touch of Evil, she’s remembering the former self of the bloated Hank Quinlan as his body sinks into ignominious oblivion. To guess what kind of a man we only have to recall the handsome young Welles of Citizen Kane (1941) or the Mephistophelian charmer of The Third Man (1949).
Touch of Evil (1958) is my preferred candidate for Welles’ greatest masterpiece, even though it’s hard to single out one film from his body of work, either as director or actor. The prodigy went on being prodigious; the films, even the lesser ones, accumulated into a work of greatness with its own inner echoes. Welles was mocked in his later years, for having wrecked his early promise, for his commercial voice-overs, for getting fat, for decline and failure. And he mocked himself. But he directed films he wanted to direct, even without financial backers, only by dint of that enormous will and his capacity to earn the money he needed elsewhere.
‘You’re a mess, honey’, says Dietrich when Quinlan first turns up, drawn to this woman from his past by the familiar sound of the pianola in her gambling joint – always playing the same jauntily melancholy tune that has an odd kinship with the zither theme in The Third Man. She returns his slyly tender gaze with no mercy: ‘I didn’t recognise you. You should lay off the candy bars’. How’s that for self-mockery? But Quinlan isn’t just monstrously obese and corrupt; he has a back story that nudged him towards these physical and moral distortions. By the time he commits the film’s most shocking act of violence we’ve seen that evil has its paradoxes.
So much has been written about Touch of Evil, so many other films have quoted its long opening take, there have been sundry interpretations, not least Stephen Heath’s Freudian essay with its shot-by-shot analysis, published 40 years ago in Screen and renowned in the world of film studies. But it’s a film that yields more on every viewing, that’s alive with meaning and baroque complexity.
In that long opening take we cross a border that will be crossed and re-crossed throughout this film so full of liminal uncertainties that we forget whether we are in Mexico or the US. Nor can we have any clear sense of time since it’s dark for most of the film’s duration, and daylight, when it comes, brings no relief from the rhythm of threat that begins with the first thing we see on the screen: a pair of hands fixing dynamite to a timer, then a shadowy figure running to place it in the boot of a convertible.
In a sustained aerial view, an elderly man and a young woman get into the car and the camera follows their progress towards the US, sliding above rooftops before descending to busy street level and finally closing in on the border crossing, where the driver, Linneker, waits impatiently. We barely glimpse his companion, who is partly obscured by the windscreen, but we hear her anxious voice: ‘Hey, I’ve got this ticking noise in my head’. When Linneker pays no heed, she insists: ‘No, really!’, and is again ignored. The car drives off, leaving the frame. Moments later, a huge explosion interrupts the characters still standing there, and about to kiss: the Mexican narcotics investigator Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new bride Suzy (Janet Leigh).
The explosion triggers a murder investigation and, more centrally, a profound conflict between Vargas and Quinlan, the latter a cleverly intuitive but ruthless detective long used to fabricating evidence as proof of culpability, the former a rational and virtuous upholder of the law, who early on makes it plain where he stands, in another well-known line: ‘A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state’.
So much goes on and at a fast pace. Touch of Evil is thick with plot and themes, each embedded in the others, just as it is hectic with simultaneous and overlapping actions or dialogue that embody the detectives’ compulsions and rivalries. But there is a parallel and no less important narrative drive that is prefigured in the border-crossing scene just before the explosion. The female victim in the car (Zita, a ‘strip-teaser’ in a club run by Zsa Zsa Gabor) hears and senses danger, but the man won’t take her seriously. The fatal outcome separates Vargas and Suzy, and for the remainder of the film it is Suzy’s plea for her husband to listen that repeatedly goes unheard and puts her in danger as he pursues other trails.
At work are the machinations of the Mexican gangster Grandi, whose brother has been brought to trial in Mexico City by Vargas and whose aim is to discredit the latter by incriminating Suzy in a scandal. Vargas not only lacks any intuitive sense of where danger lies but, in stifling her voice, he fails to give his wife her due. This feminist reading could be pushed a little further by considering how these two consequential instances of women not listened to actually bend and twist the film’s labyrinthine proceedings from start to finish, even though it is male v male motivations that seem to lie at its centre and have its best lines. Yet the quickness and intensity of Welles’ screenplay also animate the ironies in Suzy’s dialogue, whether in her confrontation with Grandi (where both gender and race rise to the surface) or in the motel room that becomes her first prison.
Touch of Evil is, I think, the most intricately patterned film I’ve ever seen. It has the qualities of a richly complicated dream that engages the waking mind so deeply with its decipherment that the dreamer emerges from its nightmarish grip invigorated, while never forgetting the reality of the nightmare. The film may appear to have a resolution that follows the classic formula of noir cinema, whereby the bad guy’s the loser and order is restored by the work of the (male) detective. But here that formula is broken by its own futility.
After Welles finished his first cut, Universal felt it could be improved and intervened by shooting additional scenes and re-editing the whole film. Welles responded to the studios with a 58-page memo that argued for his own version to be preserved, and concluded:
‘I close this memo with the very earnest plea that you consent to this brief visual pattern to which I gave so many hard days of work.’
It took 50 years for Touch of Evil to be restored in accordance with his wishes. This is the film that’s on release now.