Year: 1958 / 1998
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Victor Millan (Manolo Sanchez), Marlene Dietrich (Tana)
Genre: Crime Thriller / Noir
Touch Of Evil and the work of Orson Welles stand gargantuan in the brief history of cinema, so much so that adding anything new to the conversation seems laughable. Like the camera throughout this picture I feel humbled by the actors towering over me. I’m squatted down, hemmed in, dwarfed by such a giant.
It shouldn’t ought to be so. Writing about Touch Of Evil ought to be as natural and fluid as any movie. It’s certainly not universally loved and repeated ‘Best’ lists still tilt toward Citizen Kane as Welles’ masterpiece, even so Touch Of Evil has the stature of a ‘set text’, setting down words about it feels as though I’m about to hand in a half-sketched essay sloppily prepared the night before a deadline. It’s intimidating.
Of course, I have no such deadlines. And I never formally studied film. All this, nearly 400 pages now of reviews and essays, is off the back of my own voracious appetite for the cinema. I make no claims to authority. And so, it is from that perspective that I approach Touch Of Evil; not as a historian or genre expert – or an expert on Welles for that matter – but simply as a viewer talking about why I sometimes like to switch the light off and delve back into this deadly film.
For the purposes of this piece I’ve been watching the 1998 remaster and edit overseen by Walter Murch, a re-assembly that attempted to put back together the film Welles has envisioned. Once the studio got a hold of Welles’ film, they made some significant alterations. Welles sent them a 58 page memo outlining the vision he had for the film, and it is against this that Murch and his team worked to piece a masterpiece back together. That’s enough of the history lesson. Having watched both versions, the re-assembly is the superior film, optimally viewed in 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
Technicalities of viewing also aside, let’s get into the soul of the film, which is bewitchingly rotten to the core. The title is quite apt. Welles’ story of corruption on the US / Mexico border feels tainted by the hand of some sickly influence, an exposé that serves as literal storytelling, but also feels more expansive, as though with this one film Welles aimed to shine a light in all dark places, asking the viewer to credit the world around them with the same potential for decay. At the centre of it all is the hulking frame of Hank Quinlan, played with grotesque zeal by Welles himself. Selfishly, the director and screenwriter also steals the film, casting the remainder of the cast in the shadow of his intimidating bloat.
Regardless they fight like cats for the spotlight, and some still steal it occasionally. Charlton Heston’s shining hope Ramon Vargas is the classic Hollywood leading man; well-dressed and groomed, angular jaw, razor-sharp integrity… but *shock* Mexican! Heston plays him with assured suaveness, but behind the camera you sense Welles cackling with glee as he upends the xenophobic sensibilities of the time by shifting his hero’s country of origin. Quinlan is the American here. The scoundrel. The bastard. It’s a ballsy – and altogether welcome – reversal of the standard arrangement. And not the only area in which Touch Of Evil has clout.
Because as good as the performances are uniformly (Janet Leigh makes much of the damsel-in-distress routine, prefiguring her turn for Hitchcock in Psycho to come; Marlene Dietrich is particularly haunting as Tana), and as much as Welles’ Quinlan strives to crush all comers, the film’s very atmosphere steals the show. Touch Of Evil exists in the night. A noir-ish world of danger and potential violence that doesn’t so much play into the hands of noir’s multitudinous staples as wink toward them as it goes about its own business. So yes there’s the hard-boiled dialogue and the delicious chiaroscuro, but Touch Of Evil appeared after noir’s heyday and Welles was rarely about looking backward.
Instead his film takes these elements of noir and feeds them through a liquidiser. Touch Of Evil feels like a fevered dream. Scenes cascade like an odyssey, flowing into and around one another with a solid, unstoppable thickness, like tar lolling its way downhill. Gloopily, it gets everywhere. It gets under the skin. The narrative seems to feel its way along, sculpted rather than shrewdly plotted (though there’s assured intent to every scene). Still, there’s an off-the-cuff sense of immediacy to every development which is hard to fake, yet Welles makes being a magician seem easy, propelling the experience along.
The border town location feels like some hurdy-gurdy purgatory. Watching, one wonders what if the characters here are all already dead, and this is their lot in the afterlife, repeating the same nightmarish sequence of events, skewed through Welles’ extreme angles and crammed frames. Even the day scenes feel as though they are taking place at night. Empty skies under which all the characters seem forsaken.
We watch as Vargas quickly come to suspect Quinlan of rigging the game, framing a Mexican named Sanchez for the bombing that opens the film to terrific effect, unaware that his wife is already being held as a hold card. With his strange ‘intuitions’ and reputation, Quinlan seems to exert an almost supernatural power at the film’s beginning. The speed at which he works the chessboard is admirable. Almost immediately there’s an attempt on Vargas’ life. He has Susan trapped before she knows it herself. Decades later Cormac McCarthy would build Blood Meridian around the mythic central figure of The Judge. One wonders if he didn’t have Hank Quinlan in mind as he did so. A force powerful enough to draw others inexorably into his orbit. Before they part one another for the majority of the film, Vargas says to his wife, “What are you doing here, in the dark?” He might as well be asking himself.
Midway through the picture, however, things take a turn, and it is only once Vargas has confronted Quinlan about his misdeeds. Quinlan is seen nursing several drinks at Uncle Joe Grandi’s place. He claims not to drink even as he stares at his emptied whisky glass and one feels this can be read a couple of ways. Is this a genuine self-reflexive moment of introspection, or does he pause catching himself in yet another lie? Another for the stack? Either way one senses an unspoken question; “What if there had been another way?”
Following this, as Quinlan gets more and more blotto and the film staggers to its unforgettable climax, further regret seems to sink into the previously impervious-seeming man. Suddenly he’s simply collapsing, too long having lived the life he’s chosen. It’s too late to turn back and choose a different route. Menzies, who switches sides as the wind changes, accuses Vargas of driving Quinlan over the edge, but that perhaps credits Vargas with more power than he truly exerts in the film. More likely he represents the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. Quinlan already had demons to stir. Vargas is merely the catalyst for a more deep-seeded reaction.
By the end, Quinlan is totally exposed and withered and losing his grip. Vargas has his opportunity to gain vengeance with the aid of Menzies. In this finale, Welles’ camera seems drunk, lurching and veering, but it’s a stylistic choice executed with razor intent. The film, like Quinlan, goes out on one hell of a bender and the watching of it is intoxicating. That’s what I love about Touch Of Evil; it feels like an experience not a story. It transports the viewer, just not in the ways the viewer usually wishes to be transported.
Coming out of Touch Of Evil feels like finally reaching the surface after being underwater, or waking from a nightmare, one you still suspect might be real, even though the everyday world is reasserting itself around you. There’s sense-memory to Touch Of Evil. It actually feels like it touches you. For me that is its legacy. And a sensation I go back for, even if it might not be doing me any good. “He was some kind of man,” Tana eulogises famously at the film’s close. Touch Of Evil is some kind of film.