For years, I’ve only known TOUCH OF EVIL as the film where Charlton Heston plays a Mexican. The idea is every bit as silly as you’d expect, and only the black and white photography saves it from becoming completely comic. Such mis-casting can sink a film, especially as years turn into decades. Somehow though, TOUCH OF EVIL endures the silliness of “El Moses”, and actually flourishes despite the decision. All of this from a film the director (allegedly) wasn’t nuts about making in the first place.
Funny the way that happens, ain’t it?
TOUCH OF EVIL begins with a killing. At the Mexican border, a bomb is placed in the trunk of an American car, going off when the car crosses back into The States. The violence of the killing, and the implications it has for Americans in this border town gets the case a great deal of interest. Part of the interest comes from a police captain named Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles); likewise interested is a Mexican drug enforcement agent named Vargas (Charlton Heston). Quinlan leads an investigation that os quick to point out a suspect, but Vargas isn’t quite so sure they have their man. One thing he is sure of, is that he needs to keep his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) out of the fray.
As I expected, the film is stellar. The film is so stellar in fact that I’ve been having trouble coming up with what I wanted to say about it (which, by the way, is a challenge that looms over this whole series of posts).
The best I can offer is to recap some of the places my brain went to over the runtime of this noir classic.
For starters, I couldn’t help but wonder why noir is such a tough sell to certain circles. I’ve heard complaints about pace and about style, and yet the stories that the complaints are tied to are ones you’d think would endure. These are stories that involve morally compromised cops, criminal activities of the darkest depths, and enough sexual double-dealings to fill an entire afternoon of daytime talk shows. Shoot these stories in colour, cast Joseph Gordon Levitt, and people eat ‘em up. Restore a classic from the fifties, and it’s an uphill battle.
TOUCH OF EVIL specifically has some crazy moments; many of them swirling around Susan as she tries to stay out of trouble. The mind-fuck that is her intimidation at the motel would be bad enough: No one around for miles, and she has an entire gang of Mexicans just closing in around her slowly. One can only assume that she passed out believing that she was about to be gang-raped. When she comes to – somewhere completely different - she’s lashed to a bed with a dead body draped over its headboard!
These are details that would make Eli Roth shudder…and yet, stories like TOUCH OF EVIL get a cold shoulder.
Another thought I found myself lingering on was my conversation with Walter Murch two years ago. Murch was one of the team members who gathered to somewhat restore the film to its original vision. The version of TOUCH OF EVIL they came back with – the version I watched – was the 1998 restoration from Orson Welles’ original notes. After Welles turned in a rough cut of the film to Universal, the studio decided to have their way with it. They cut details out, added music and credits in, and drastically changed the pace of the film. Upon seeing the studio’s edit, Welles wrote a memo detailing what he felt was wrong with this new cut. Going off those points, Murch and company were able to restore some of the lost intent.
While only a handful of working directors get final cut, it’s so hard to fathom this sort of thing happening as often as it seemed to happen to Welles. I mean, the guy was an Oscar winner! Could you imagine a director like Ang Lee, or Danny Boyle, or The Coen Brothers delivering a film to a studio only to have the studio heads then take creative matters into their own hands?
I’ve heard that sometimes, powers that be have trouble realizing that employees they hired at a young age have grown up. Perhaps to circles like those in charge at Universal, Welles was always that 26-year-old kid.
I’ve only read about what the film felt like before Murch and Co. got to work on it, and from what I’ve read, I don’t ever want to see that version.
The final thing that came to mind as the film drew towards its comeuppance of a conclusion, was the cluster of times I’d watched the scene in question before despite this being my first viewing of the film. Indeed, that final scene plays a part in Barry Sonenfeld’s GET SHORTY, when we see John Travolta as Chili Palmer deeply engrossed in a rep screening of it. He leans forward on his seat, calls out lines, and even smack talks Welles during his ultimate fate. Given how many dozens of times I’ve watched GET SHORTY in the last seventeen years, I could almost recite the scene. This of course means I’m quoting Travolta, quoting Dietrich and Mills.
The great thing about this is that it doesn’t affect the film’s overall effect…which is curious. Had Chili Palmer been watching THE USUAL SUSPECTS, the film would never play the same (I know SHORTY and suspects came out the same year, just work with me). What I couldn’t have known is that TOUCH OF EVIL was never actually about “whodunnit”…it was never about who lived and who died. Like GET SHORTY, it’s a film about a collection of crooked characters, and letting them argue themselves in circles over which one is least crooked.
With only three titles to go in the series for this year, it’s interesting to me that this is the film I’m most anxious to revisit. Not only did I put it off within the scope of this watchlist, but it’s a film that has long been there for the watching for me, but never actually queued up. I can clearly remember being given a VHS copy of it by my brother years ago, and leaving unwatched on my entertainment unit for months. There was never a good reason why – the same as how I have no good reason for leaving it so late in this posting series.
Guess it just goes to show that sometimes we should just force ourselves to sit down and watch. For all we know, we’ve been denying ourselves a new favorite.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for September…
Sean Kelly watched A SERIOUS MAN
Courtney Small watched THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS
Dan Heaton watched BARRY LYNDON
Steve Honeywell watched BONNIE AND CLYDE
Bob “I Forgot to Wind My Calendar” Turnbull watched AMADEUS and MARTY
Andreas watched DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER
Jake Cole watched DON’T LOOK NOW
Max Covill watched BLACK NARCISSUS