April 27, 2008 -- As a special tribute to the late Charleton Heston, my colleague, Patrick Ivers, and I are reviewing a couple of Heston's older films, the 1961 heroic epic, El Cid, and the 1958 film noir classic, “Touch of Evil.” This latter film, directed by Orson Welles, is one of the examples suggested by Professor Stanley Fish as proof of his contention that Heston is a character actor in a leading man's body. He looks every part the epic hero, but seems uncomfortable in a role that others have thrust upon him. In this film, he plays a Mexican cop, although he doesn't look, or sound the part. Heston's greatest accomplishment in this film was something he did before the film started. Heston was instrumental in persuading the studio to allow Welles to direct this film. Heston would later say that Welles taught him more about acting in this film than he learned before or since.
This film is said to be the last film noir made during the classic period of the genre. Film noir (black film) is a very influential style of film featuring dark scenes, dark themes and flawed characters from the seamy underbelly of society, crooked cops, murderous bad guys and dangerous dames. “Touch of Evil” takes these dark themes and exaggerates them to a comic degree, then adds some comic characters like a deranged motel “night man” (Dennis Weaver, who starts out with some kind of Scandinavian accent and then gradually eases back into his Chester Goode drawl from the “Gunsmoke” TV show he was starring in at the time. He took three days off from “Gunsmoke” to shoot this film.). Weaver's strange night clerk at the motel, combined with his nervous lone guest, Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) oddly foreshadowed Anthony Perkins' deranged motel manager and Janet Leigh's nervous lone guest role in “Psycho.” Another comic character is a wise guy wannabe, the cigar-chomping 'Uncle' Joe Grandi (played by Akim Tamiroff of Russian extraction).
The fact that you've got Charleton Heston playing a Mexican cop, Ramon Miguel 'Mike' Vargas is a bit distracting at first, but this is also played for laughs. Orson Welles (who also wrote the screenplay and directs the film), who plays a corrupt lawman, Captain Hank Quinlan, wryly observes in an early scene that Heston neither looks nor sounds like a Mexican. This is Welles' way of winking at the audience and saying, “relax and enjoy this.” Later Quinlan again notes that Vargas' wife Susan, a stunning blonde beauty, “doesn't look Mexican either.” This may be film noir, but Orson Welles is clearly having fun with it. Too often, films like this that are described as classics and masterpieces are deadly dull (a good example of this is Welles' “The Magnificent Ambersons”). This film, however, is delightfully entertaining to watch. It is filled with interesting characters and it is playfully irreverent. It is masterfully constructed, but doesn't take itself seriously. In some ways, it is an outright spoof of the film noir genre.
The film opens with a famous three minute, 20-second tracking shot of a bomber planting a bomb in a car trunk, followed by tracking the car down the street of a sleepy border town to the U.S. side of the border, picking up Vargas and his wife along the way. This opening looks and sounds very different, depending on which version of the film you are watching. I recommend the 1998 version re-edited by Walter Murch (who worked on such films as “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”) to conform to Welles' 58 page memo to the studio recommending changes in the film. The studio didn't like Welles' first rough cut and had taken the project away from him. When released, the opening shot was hampered by titles and musical score added by the studio. I believe the Murch re-edit of the film is superior to the original release version, which was harmed by a ham-fisted studio interference (even greater problems hampered the production of “The Magnificent Ambersons”).
An explosion kills a man and woman in the car, resulting in a murder investigation. A young man is arrested for murder, but Vargas discovers key evidence against the man was planted by Quinlan. When Vargas confronts Quinlan about the evidence, Quinlan reluctantly goes along with a plan advanced by Joe Grandi to frame Vargas' wife. Grandi wants Vargas out of the way because Vargas is set to testify against his family in a court proceeding. Vargas thinks his wife is safe at a remote motel (where Dennis Weaver is the night man). He doesn't know the motel is owned by Grandi. The situation escalates into murder as the film nears its climax.
Quinlan is a very interesting villain. Shot with a wide angle lenses mounted at low angles, he looks monstrous, much like Jabba the Hut. Welles, who was heavy anyway, wore overstuffed clothing to look even larger in the role. Quinlan admits to planting evidence, but always claims, perhaps rightly, that those he framed were guilty. He says, and the evidence supports him, that he never took bribes. It appears Quinlan is a hard-working, self-sacrificing cop that put 30 years of his life into his work. That is precisely why he turns into a killer in the end: To protect his legacy of police work. Grandi is a small time hood who wants to swim with the big fish. He gets in over his head. Vargas is a principled man, but goes berserk when his wife is kidnapped and framed. This is where Heston shows real intensity, edge and danger. He is impressive when he is pushed to the edge.
A couple of Welles' old friends are in the film. Joseph Cotten, from his Mercury Theater days, who plays the coroner, and Joseph Calleia, who plays Police Sergeant Pete Menzies, a key character in the film. Menzies is an old friend of Quinlan and his longtime partner. He says he learned how to be a cop from Quinlan and idolizes him. When he finds out that Quinlan may have been involved in a frame and a murder he is badly conflicted, but decides to confide in Vargas and confront Quinlan. He wears a secret microphone and transmitter and tries to get Quinlan to confess to him. This is an early use of a device which later becomes standard in exactly this kind of dramatic scene.
This was actually a “B” film, shown as a second feature with the now-forgotten main feature “The Female Animal.” This has to be one of the most talent-laden B-movies ever made. Not only do you have Charleton Heston and Janet Leigh starring, but Orson Welles directing. Yet another classic film star, Marlene Dietrich, appears in the film as a sultry Mexican fortune teller and sometime girlfriend to Quinlan. When Quinlan asks her to tell him his future, she replies, “You don't have any.” Her entrance into the film is amazing, her eyes piercing Quinlan's very soul. Zsa Zsa Gabor plays the owner of a strip club and Mercedes McCambridge, who won the Academy Award for her role in “All the King's Men” nine years before this, plays a Mexican gang member. Famed character actor Keenan Wynn (Colonel Bat Guano in “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”) also has a bit part in the film. Not your usual B-Movie cast.
This is a historically significant film, ending the classic film noir period, and also ending Orson Welles' storied Hollywood career. He continued making films in Europe after this. This film reportedly also influenced the French “new wave” film movement that followed it. Many filmmakers continue to borrow ideas and techniques from this film. This film rates a B.
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