Touch of Evil

Lawrence Russell

Touch Of Evil (1958) writ. and dir. Orson Welles (based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterton) cine. Russell Metty music. Henry Mancini star. Charlten Heston (Vargas), Janet Leigh (Suzie Vargas), Orson Welles (Capt. Hank Quinlan), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Mercedes McCambridge (lesbian hood), Denis Weaver (motel clerk), Jospeh Calleia


Orson Welles plays Captain Hank Quinlan, a detective who fictionalizes his cases in order to make them fit the easy symmetry his corrupted mind requires. All his murder cases have become a replay of his own psychodrama, wherein he plays judge and executioner in the unproven affair of his dead wife and her lover. He strangled his wife... and now he hunts the shadows of the border town Los Robles for the surrogates who must pay the price for his ancient trauma.

It's a split jurisdiction -- one part in America, one part in Mexico -- which act in contradiction, where the lawful and the lawless exist in a sweet co-dependency of oil, drugs, and sex. Quinlan's nemesis is Vargas (Heston), a Mexican cop with a new American wife (Leigh) who just happens to be on his honeymoon in Los Robles, the family home of the Grandy gang whose patriarch is currently under indictment in Mexico City for drug-trafficking.

Night. Los Robles is bustling with border-town excitement, gringos and chicanos in the bars, clubs, and commercial arcades that glow in the shadows of the oil derricks that pump continuously like a chorus of phantoms.

A time-bomb is placed in the trunk of a '57 Chrysler convertible by an anonymous assassin. A couple get in, start driving for the border crossing near the bridge over the river that divides the two countries. At the same time Vargas and his pretty wife are walking along the main drag and arrive at the immigration booth at the same time as the car. The atmosphere is festive, passage a mere formality. Is Senor Vargas here to crack another drug-ring? No, just to buy a milk-shake for his American wife. Meanwhile the woman in the convertible protests about a "ticking" in her head... but they're waved through, her consort gunning the car for the bridge.

Vargas and Suzie are walking again, stop to kiss -- the bomb explodes, sharding the shiny new auto and its two occupants in a soaring trajectal ball of fire. You later discover the car is identical to the one driven by Vargas, wonder at the meaning of this coincidence that's ignored by everyone, including Vargas himself. The symmetry is even more coincidental when Quinlan arrests a young Mexican shoe clerk for the bombing. The victims are a nightclub dancer and the father of the clerk's American girlfriend, a rich man who was utterly opposed to this love affair.

Cop: How did you meet Marsha Whittiker?

Sanchez: I sold her a pair of shoes... and I've been on my knees before her ever since.

Vargas immediately discovers that Quinlan has framed Sanchez by putting two sticks of dynamite in a shoe box. When Vargas finds two sticks are missing from Quinlan's private explosives stash at his ranch, Quinlan is forced into an uneasy alliance with "Uncle Joe", the sleazy brother of the Grady patriarch who has been indicted for drug-trafficking.

Uncle Joe has already drugged and kidnapped Vargas' wife, has her upstairs in his club. But all of this is to no avail, as Vargas has the support of the assistant D.A. and the disillusioned detective, Pete Menzies. It's the disillusioned Menzies who agrees to wear a wire, entrap his former hero Quinlan as they walk together from the brothel through the oil field to the bridge-crossing in a final coda that mirrors the walk of Vargas and his wife at the opening.

It's an ugly ending for an ugly man. This bloated beast of American corruption sinks into a pile of garbage below the bridge as the tape implicating him echoes in the night. He's shot by his lieutenant, Menzies, from the bridge (in a surprise resurrection) and drops backwards into the slimy waters, watched by his old lover Tanya and the Assistant D.A. Meanwhile Vargas is necking with his wife in their convertible, reconciled once more after the nightmare.

Schwartz: You really liked him, didn't you?

Tanya: (mistily) The cop did. The one who killed him -- he loved him.

Schwartz: He was a good detective alright.

Tanya: And a lousy cop.

Schwartz: Is that all you have to say for him?

Tanya: He was some kind of man...

Tanya (Dietrich) then exits over the bridge, returning to her brothel as the player-piano mocks the night with its mechanical melody. The ending is an absurd, muddled parody of itself, the actors, and doomed love torch dramas like Casablanca or The Blue Angel. Within this forced exposition, you learn that Sanchez has confessed to the bombing (so Quinlan was right after all) and Susan Vargas wasn't shot up with heroin and Mexicans do have integrity and all's right with the world. Ugly.

Touch of Evil is perhaps not as good as some of us have thought, have wanted, have believed. It exists in myth, another anti-film despised by the Studio philistines but revered by Orson Welles devotees. The Wellesian signature -- the theatre effect -- is in full force once again. The actors move and talk as an ensemble, framed in shadow, isolated in spotlight, a Renaissance tragedy complete with assassins, buffoons, go-betweens, madmen and their sexual mothers. Ugly.

Who's at fault here -- Welles? Or maybe the post-production boss Nims who re-edited the first five reels in an attempt to restore linearity to plot and counter-plot? It starts well. Who can dispute the brilliance of the opening 3 minute tracking shot that remains unbroken until the kiss and the explosion? Who can dispute the atmospherics, the sense of evil in such scenes as Susan Vargas being harassed in her hotel room by a man with a flashlight in another room across the street... or her sado-erotic ordeal in the Mirador Motel with the chicano hot-rod hoods and junky lesbians... or Quinlan's murder of Uncle Joe Grandy, a strangulation by nylon stocking as Suzie V. lies like a drugged nymphomaniac on the bed nearby?

The narrative starts at night, ends at night, a 24 hour cycle in which the waking hours are merely a dream, a hallucination of what is real, what is true. Yet the film is always struggling with the stylistics of its surrealism, its over-lapping dialogue, improvs and miscast characters. Despite the makeup, Heston struggles in his role as an educated Mexican, lacking the Latino vibe, an emasculated Othello in another American fantasy of racial harmony. And Welles, always re-inventing himself as an aging blimp, isn't as coherent as he should be, is often mumbling to the point of irrelevance.

Denis Weaver's celebrated performance as the weirdo motel clerk now seems contrived, a send-up to create character where character doesn't exist, a buffoon masquerading as a demon. As for Marlene Dietrich as the beautiful Madame from the sentimental past, let's admit that her inclusion was a mistake.

It doesn't take much to destroy rhythm and while an alien editor might be at fault, the production values seem compromised, i.e. when Vargas and the Assistant D.A. Schwartz are driving through town, the back-projection suggests they're flying a jet, moving at reckless and improbable speeds. You can cheat on continuity if the rhythm is right, as no audience can ever absorb the full meaning of all the action no matter how linear it might be.

It's a pity, as it's very nice to look at most of the time, the black and white imagery reducing space to the perspectives of woodcut printing, a sort of symbolism of shape and attitude, a theatrical expressionism characteristic of Welles in his best work. The idea of a continuous Master Scene representing 24 hours-in-the-life with cutaways to parallel actions is good. Aristotle would've liked it.

Quinlan's last words before falling into the sewer are, "That's the second bullet I stopped for you." While you can imagine some past anguish between him and Tanya, as likely as not it's probably another in-joke from Welles to his real nemesis, Hollywood.

© LR 6/7/99


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