Thursday, February 12, 2009

Touch of Evil

Later this week I'm going to be posting YOUR Best Bad Movies. But before I do I thought I'd give you a review of a Best Bad Movie. Considered by most current reviewers as the best B movie ever created (not be confused with the really bad Seinfield "Bee Movie"). So read the review then come back in a few days and see the results of the Best Bad Movies. I know you'll be dreaming of your movie until then. And let me just tell you, that's a little creepy, which makes me not love you anymore.
But I still like you as a friend.
Just a Touch of Evil

When reviewing movies, you sometimes have to compare one to another. There’s always a fall back. When one director fell flat another one is there to show you why it sucked. When it comes to film noir, Touch of Evil is the compass-north reference point. Not only are there whispers of it being the last good film noir movie, but the best B-Movie of all time. It wasn’t even appreciated by its own country in its own time (It failed at the box office). All the “classic” movie praises used by all those movie snobs. But sadly, most people have never even heard of Touch of Evil, let alone consider it one of their favorites.
Premiering in 1958, Touch of Evil was the second half of a double bill (that’s why it’s considered a B-Movie) and was based on a novel by Whit Masterson called “Badge of Evil”. The screenplay was written and directed by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) who also stars along with Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments) and Janet Leigh (Psycho). I’d warn any viewer that the plot becomes somewhat complicated; it’s not a movie to watch while doing something else (although, you really shouldn’t do that with any movie but that’s another story all together).
As the movie opens, we see a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car right before a construction company owner gets in with his much younger girlfriend. Meanwhile, Mexican official Mike Vargas (Heston) and his new wife Susan (Leigh) begin to walk next to the car in order to cross the Mexican border into the United States. The newlywed couple stops to talk as the car passes them and the bomb goes off shortly after crossing into U.S. territory. (And that is all one continuous camera shot; way to start the movie off with a bang.) The bomb grabs the attention of the American police, since it is technically in their jurisdiction, and along with them a monster of a police officer, Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Quinlan, who is famous for his correct “hunches”, insists on taking the case into Mexico to look for suspects and Vargas decides he should look into the case as well. At the same time, a peeved-off Mexican mob boss, Joe Grandi is looking to destroy Vargas and his wife for catching his drug dealing brother. Vargas stays relatively unaware of Grandi throughout the whole movie, obsessed with the bomb case, despite the outcries of his Grandi-tortured wife who unwillingly gets caught up the plot to frame her own husband. The bombing investigation ends up putting Vargas against Quinlan and the rest of the movie is the two of them trying to bring one another down.
The direction is amazing. Leigh and Heston took pay cuts for this movie just to work with Welles and it was well worth it. His opening shot is well praised from bomb to boom Welles makes cinematic history. There is also the single shot in the bomb suspect’s apartment that really shines. There are tons of people in one little space, all saying something different and the direction is awesome. There is also a part when three police men ride up a small elevator to meet Vargas who left them in the lobby. Vargas reappears at the very moment the elevator opens to let the men out, very brilliantly done in one shot. Welles’ use of lighting is a black and white film is spot on, it almost becomes another character altogether. Another shining light is the sound used for the film. The music used throughout Touch of Evil was from the sound sources that belong to the movie itself: the radio transmissions, jukeboxes, and a player piano. These are the reasons that the movie is incredibly amazing. If you are a stickler to the direction and the background of films, you will love this movie.
But let me tell you why most Americans (especially when it came out) would not like this movie. Actually, there are multiple reasons. The acting is horrible, the movie is racist as well as sexist, and the plot is horribly confusing with no real victor at the end.
Heston is completely below par in this movie. He is supposed to be the star yet he just blends into the background in almost every scene. Toward the end, he picks up speed a little but only because the character requires it. It’s nothing spectacular especially not Ten Commandments material, heck it’s not even Soylent Green material. Leigh, although better than Heston, makes a mockery of herself. She seems to be in a totally different movie than everyone else.
Maybe the two actors are just making due with what they are given but bad choices on all fronts here. Heston comes across as racist and Leigh plays into one of the most sexist roles in one of the most sexist movies I’ve ever seen. Heston is supposed to be a Mexican. Have you seen a less Mexican looking man? He just looks like the earliest victim of spray-on-tanning. Wouldn’t it be a novel idea to have a Mexican play a Mexican? Even Quinlan says “He doesn’t look Mexican,” the first time he meets Vargas. And to make things worse, all legit Mexican actors play evil characters and it’s blatantly obvious. Leigh’s Susan is the only non-hooker woman in the whole movie and what does she do? She’s part of the plot to bring down her husband, all because she’s weak, defenseless and a woman. Her husband treats her as an after thought and thinks of her as property. And then there is Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as a member of Grandi’s gang who “wants to watch” as Susan is gang raped and Zsa Zsa Gabor appears for fifteen seconds as a strip club owner. I was highly disappointed. The only woman that showed any skill or respect in this whole movie was Marlene Dietrich, who although played some kind of nightclub woman, had a strong presence and the ability to hold her own. The classically best line (maybe the only good line) is said by her character Tanya:
Quinlan: Come on, read my future for me.
Tanya: You haven't got any.
Quinlan: What do you mean?
Tanya: Your future is all used up.
Welles’ Quinlan is eerie. He is a very large man who sweats buckets all the time and barks orders at his little minions. He is down right scary yet you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. He forces facts to be true when they aren’t and believes that his hunches are enough evidence to send men to the electric chair. He shoots his only friend to keep an illusion of himself that fooled everyone around him and ultimately himself. You hate his toughness but he still has this pitiful glow about him that makes you feel more sorry for him than his victims. Although Quinlan is the character who in the end has the “touch of evil” he clearly is the character that makes the most impact in the whole film. I doubt that there will ever be a more unpleasant, impertinent, or disgusting detective than Welles’ Quinlan or a more captivating one.
The main thing I disliked about the movie was that the plot was horribly confusing. There were so many random characters that I couldn’t keep them straight. And the whole subplot with Grandi seemed like a waste of time. It eventually comes together in the end but not enough for my liking. Welles once said that he wanted the plot to purposely be a little confusing but just because it is supposed to be that way doesn’t mean I have to like it. There was attempt at comedy with the bumbling, strange “Night Manager” who I think was supposed to be some kind of comedic relief but comes off as a little creepy. Plus, it is so hard to laugh in scenes that he is in because the situation is so serious. I just kept feeling bad for Susan who is supposed to be on her honeymoon but her husband won’t give her the time of day, she gets gang raped, comes across a dead body, is accused of murder and is thrown in jail. And then finally Vargas pays attention to her. The scene that sums up Susan’s and Vargas’ relationship is when she is screaming on a fire escape, naked right above him to come to her rescue and he doesn’t hear her. Quinlan was just impossible to watch. He was big, depressing, and desperate, humanity at its worse. The close-ups on his face made me cringe. As Tanya says at the end, “He was some kind of man.” On the other hand, perhaps the best thing about Touch of Evil is the bitter, foreign and unsympathetic impression of its dark city full of racism, prostitution, illegal substances, and gang rape as almost a universal corruption. Once you pull yourself of the movie itself and start thinking about what it represents, the movie seems much more profound.
Overall I would say that I liked the film but mostly admired it. I doubt I would sit at home on a Friday night and watch it for fun just because it is very depressing. I can appreciate the artsy-ness of the film and the brilliant directing. I do think it is cinematography in its greatest film noir form. But as I said before, I don’t recommend this film to people who like seeing movies for the story or the acting but rather to those who see film as an art form and wish to explore that angle. And if you would like to see the film closer to the version that Welles originally intended, look for the extended alternative version that is entitled “The Director’s Cut”.


  1. I didn't mind the confusion (not up to Lynch level). The racist and sexist are thrown in your face but not significantly more than many other movies of the era.

    It was Charlie's acting that killed things for me. Welles was incredible but he and the others couldn't make up for how poorly cast Heston was. And I'll even defend Omega Man but an actual Mexican actor could have saved things.

    This sounds very negative but overall I liked/admired it. But, man, that Heston. . .

  2. Did anyone catch the Touch of Evil poster in Wilson's office on House tonight? So completely out of character...