I’m not sure if it’s the saddest tale in all of Hollywood, but Orson Welles’ fall from grace within the studio system surely left quite a large stain upon cinematic history. As I’ve grown older, I've become more attuned to the passing of time as both a marker of progress and of what was left unaccomplished. In the case of Orson Welles, we should actually count our lucky stars that we have what we have. There of course is Citizen Kane, made at the outset of a career where he was a wunderkind who quickly fell into a situation from which he never recovered, having film after film taken from his controls. Most consider the lost passages of The Magnificent Ambersons to have contained elements that may have made it even greater than Kane. Then there’s all the messiness of the rest of his career, loaded with unfinished films, bizarrely financed ones, the Shakespearean adaptations, the “documentaries”, and of course Touch of Evil. There is something just so gloriously cathartic and sad about an aging and paunchy cop in the throes of his own demise, made terrifically humanistic by Welles’ portrayal in this film. What makes it resonate even further, are the struggles that Welles had to even get the film released as he envisioned, something he never saw happen in his lifetime.
Welles’ Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir from the classic period. It stars Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a drug enforcement official for the Mexican government, who has just been married to Susie (Janet Leigh). They witness a car bomb explosion on the U.S. – Mexico border and quickly, several investigators join the scene, including police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). The investigation leads to a suspect named Sanchez, who is interrogated in his apartment. 2 Sticks of dynamite are found in Sanchez’s apartment, but Vargas suspects that Quinlan planted the dynamite there to frame Sanchez. Vargas decides to look into Quinlan’s police records and determines many of his cases involved evidence that the accused was not aware of. Meanwhile, Susie ends up in some trouble of her own after she begins staying at a small, rather vacant motel (Psycho anyone?), where she is kidnapped and then used by Quinlan to try and ruin the name of Mike Vargas by framing her for the murder of a thug named Grandi and with drug involvement. Vargas is at the end of his wits when Quinlan’s assistant detective Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) notifies Vargas that he found Quinlan’s cane at the scene of the crime, thereby convincing Vargas that he was right all along, leading to the fantastic conclusion where Vargas and Menzies attempt to bug Quinlan’s conversation to incriminate himself in order to bring Quinlan to justice.
For all the convoluted-ness of the plot, it’s actually remarkable how well the film holds together despite the raggedness and disjointed qualities. Many key sequences of continuity were lost once Welles lost control of the editing of the film for its theatrical release. His 58 page memo to Universal Pictures detailed his wishes of what should be fixed in order to make the film complete. It was reduced to 93 minutes from his original 112 minute cut for original release. In 1998, the film was restored, to the best approximation possible to Welles’ information found in his memo to the studio. However one looks at all the different versions and incarnations of the film, what is so staggering is the look and feel of the film. There is so much kinetic camerawork that was filmed by Russell Metty with a few key tracking shots and shaky-cam shots giving a vibrant sense of discombobulation. Also, Welles’s prototypical Dutch angle shots and low angle shots predominate, along with low-lit scenes with deep amounts of shadows pervading throughout. Welles’s vision of creating a world where wrong outweighs right seems to reflect the bizarre and garish lighting and angles, along with Mancini’s pulsing and often atonal score. There is an uneasy kind of squeamishness to the whole film that is hard to look away from and is one of the reasons why I love the film so much.
What I love best though, is the performance by Welles himself, who here gives his greatest on screen performance. Welles was so often a vocal actor in his earlier career. His voice inflections carry so much weight that it’s hard to sometimes focus on the physical quality of his acting. Not so in Touch of Evil, where the sheer physical size of his presence and his bulbous and swollen face seem to be larger than life. The camera likes to over-emphasize this at key moments, positioning Welles’ face in grotesque close-up at sometimes odd angles. In fact, Welles seems to be relishing the opportunity to undermine his own sense of stardom, tossing off the trappings of youth and ambition and laying it all bare for the world to see, nearly deliberately making himself repulsive. Welles captures and embodies a kind of sad-sack persona in Hank Quinlan, a pathetic and previously confident man who is quickly seeing the end of a long run at the top of the heap. How Welles makes Quinlan such a compelling figure is a great feat of acting. Quinlan is such a sleaze-ball, yet I’m torn between wanting him to see justice and also feeling pity for the guy. Perhaps it’s because Welles toned down his vocal ticks and aggressive confidence in this film, which forced him to stretch for effect and emotion in other areas, like quietness and pensiveness and sadness and regret. It’s a terrific performance and not something to be ignored. I don’t think Touch of Evil is Welles's best film. That would be a hard argument to put forth. It’s just my own personal favorite of his.