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Posts Tagged ‘Touch of Evil’

The lovely old tradition of the classic cinema revival is in danger of being thoroughly smeared for the basest of motives. Seeing older movies back on the big screen has brought me some of my best moviegoing experiences, from watching Seven Samurai, The Wicker Man and Taxi Driver during my student days, to catching Star Trek II in rep just last summer. These days, alas, the revival is as often as not another mechanism used to attempt to prop up the tottering 3D edifice – last year saw The Lion King 3D, with Titanic 3D and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D already on the horizon (not that I’m absolutely ruling out the possibility of seeing one of those…).

Nevertheless, proper, sensible, non-stereoscoped revivals continue to take place, which is how I was able to watch the restored version of Orson Welles’ 1958 movie Touch of Evil. Given that the director also plays a major acting role, it may, of course, simply be the case that the 3D technology does not yet exist which is capable of handling Welles’ – er – heroic physique, but the reason is insignificant compared to the result.

The plot runs thusly: night in a small town on the US-Mexican border is shattered when a car bomb kills a local American businessman and his girlfriend. On the scene coincidentally is Mexican government agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, Hispanicked up for the part) and his new bride (Janet Leigh). Worried about the diplomatic implications should a Mexican have murdered an American, Vargas involves himself in the case, despite the fact he’s already mixed up in the prosecution of a local crime family.

This puts Vargas in the path of the local law, personified by Hank Quinlan (Welles), something with severe consequences for both men. Vargas quickly realises that Quinlan will go to any lengths to punish the guilty – and if this extends to roughing up suspects and planting evidence, so be it. The Mexican resolves to expose Quinlan’s methods, not realising that an alliance between his target and his own enemies may put not just him but also his wife in danger…

A summary of the plot does little to explain quite why Touch of Evil has become such a revered movie, and one of the two or three cornerstones on which Orson Welles’ legend rests. The story itself is not that special, but then if this film is remarkable it is not for the tale but the manner of its telling. Welles makes his ambitions clear from the very beginning of the film, with its justly famous, insanely complex three minute shot, in which the camera travels the length of the town as it tracks the progress of the car carrying the bomb. It’s an ostentatiously brilliant flourish – nothing else in the movie quite matches it for sheer verve, but it makes it clear that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill production.

The camerawork in this movie is almost absurdly accomplished simply on a technical level, but what really makes an impact is the atmosphere that Welles conjures up – the film takes place in a filthy, sweaty, half-lit world of guilty compromises and dirty secrets, with the purity of classic noir becoming stained by the outriders of a new and more frantic culture – biker gangs, rock ‘n’ roll and marijuana are beginning to supplant hoodlums, jazz and cheap booze.

Quinlan is one of cinema’s great monsters: a shabby, obese, brutal racist – but never an inhuman one. Hints of a backstory suggest how this man came to be as he is, and while never sympathetic he is not quite without virtue – if he has abused his power it is not for personal ends, but in the pursuit of what he sees as his duty. If there is any real evil in Quinlan, then it is only a minor element of who he is – a touch of evil, but no more.

As both director and actor, Orson Welles dominates this movie whether on the screen or off it – his arrival as Quinlan may not be as iconic as his first appearance as Harry Lime in The Third Man, but at the screening I attended it was greeted by soft chuckling throughout the audience: this was the man we had come to see. Of course, he does not disappoint, even if his performance at times borders on being a little too mannered. As ever, one is left infuriated by both the quixotic nature of his vast talents and the shortsightedness of Hollywood in making so little use of them.

It has become something of a running joke that Charlton Heston makes an unlikely Mexican, but, oddly, this suits the movie rather well. The star is incongruous in the part, but then again everything that Heston always embodied – a kind of muscular conviction and self-assurance – is equally out of place in the world of the movie. Some of the film’s most electric moments come from the clash between Heston’s monolithic certitude and the intangible ambiguities that always seem to swirl around Welles in his greatest moments.

Elsewhere in the cast, Janet Leigh starts well but after a while simply has very little to do beyond lie around in a stupor – she has virtually nothing to do following a sequence where she checks into a remote motel with a twitchy weirdo in charge (Leigh’s career in the late 50s involved quite a lot of this sort of thing). The performances of the rest of the cast, with the exception of a luminous Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old flame, are really presenting grotesques of various kinds. The only performance which really oversteps the mark is that of Dennis Weaver as the motel nightman: he really is a bit too OTT by modern standards and unintentionally funny as a result.

But, then again, Touch of Evil is really all about presenting a tale of a clash between moral idealism and corruption in an irresistibly exaggerated style – and while Heston may be victorious at the conclusion of the story, one gets no sense that he and Leigh have done anything to amend the wider world in which they live; they are the aberrations, not Quinlan. Even then, the film is too extravagantly stylish and too magisterially made to really feel downbeat. Welles’ great achievement in Touch of Evil is to transform the crime melodrama into the cinematic equivalent of grand opera – but then again, one would surely expect no less of a man who was larger-than-life himself in almost every respect.

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