Monday, May 9, 2011

Flick of The Day: Touch of Evil

Orson Welles is one of the great figures of Hollywood cinema. A child prodigy, he created a masterpiece with his feature debut, Citizen Kane, aged just 26. There is a certain revisionist view in vogue at the moment, which attempts to lessen the importance of the film, but it is so wrong. Even the most myopic of modern viewers can see how far ahead of its time it was in style, narrative structure and technique. However, Kane was a commercial failure and a controversial one at that. Thereafter, Welles was never given the chance to make a film in Hollywood without interference, and never lived up to the early promise of his debut. However the closest he came was today's flick of the day, Touch of Evil.
After a long period in the wilderness, Welles was hired to play the role of Captain Quinlan, a corrupt local police captain in a town on the American side of the Mexican border. As was often the case, he was soon directing and writing the feature, largely at the behest of star Charlton Heston. The film opens with a much imitated and lauded tracking shot in a rough and tumble Mexican border town, as a bomb is placed in the back of a car of a local businessman and his girlfriend. We follow the car as it moves to the border crossing, along the way we meet Mexican narcotics officer Ramon Vargas, played by Heston and his new bride Susan, played by Janet Leigh as they walk back to their Hotel on the American side. Just over the border, the bomb explodes in a fiery ball, killing the passengers. Of course, as the man on the spot, Vargas feels the need to get involved. Before long, Quinlan is on the scene and doesn't react well to Vargas' involvement. Together they investigate the crime, with Quinlan suspecting a local Mexican employee of the murdered man of planting the bomb. However he chooses to plant evidence on him rather then find proof, setting him on a collision course with Vargas. The film is classic noir, with an ending to match.
Welles is brilliant himself as the malevolent Quinlan, the big fish in the small pond used to getting his way all the time. As one of his former paramour's Tanya played Marlene Dietrich, puts it at the end of the film:

He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?

While Heston is not believable as a Mexican, his straight laced approach to the role of the narcotics officer Vargas is well suited and he plays it well throughout. Janet Leigh isn't given a whole lot to do as his wife, apart from being set upon by a band of "marijuana fiends", in a scene that is funny in an unintended manner. 
The plot is no more then your average potboiler then, but it is made then the material by Welles direction. The opening tracking shot, which lasts nearly 3 and a half minutes is just one of a number of technically daring shots in the film and Welles assembled  a great supporting cast including cameo appearances from Zsa-Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten. Welles was always famous for his ability to work with actors, seeking their input which was something the likes of Janet Leigh has not experienced before:

"It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn't want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes."

The film should have gone on to great critical acclaim, however when Welles presented his cut to Univeral Internation Pictures, they took the film away from and re-shot and edited it to the point where the plot was incomprehensible and robbed it of the style and wit he had wanted. It was released as a B movie and it largely disappeared from view thereafter until in 1998, the film was re-edited as per Welles wishes and released again on DVD where it found the audience it deserved.

Ultimately Welles never made another film for a major studio, and his relationship with Hollywood was frosty in general. Viewed today, it is a fine film, an entertaining story which is driven by strong performances from Welles and Heston. While not a masterpiece, it is a fine example of the talent of Orson Welles as a director, producing a silk purse of a film out of a sows ear of a b-movie story. Oh, what might have been...

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