Film Favorites: Touch of Evil

Released in 1958 on the eve of the barren no man’s land that was Hollywood cinema during the first half of the ’60s (before the ’70s would give it the caustic, cynical kick it needed to revitalize itself), it’s fitting that Touch of Evil is usually considered the final classic-period film noir. As if sensing the decay of the Hollywood system and its inevitable decline for its conservative rigidity, Orson Welles must have sought to bring the house down by making the ultimate film in one of its premier genres (Welles, to be fair, had not only seen this coming but had initiated its eventual arrival twenty years before when he gave the studio system its definitive film and by definition made every passing year for Hollywood an unsuccessful attempt to surpass this benchmark). And “ultimate” film noir here doesn’t so much mean the greatest or best film noir, although it comes close.  It implies instead that this film is the ultimate example of noir, or the most film noirish noir ever –  it plays like Welles read the genre past itself, distilled it to its core, and expanded those elements to their extreme. Everything –  from the caustic characters to the cavernous nightmarish despair to the eternal worthlessness of human nature to the implicit racial subtext to the concern over obsession, control, and power –  that constructed the noir as a genre is on display here and rendered more nihilistic than perhaps ever before.

More-so though, the film re-reads the visuality of noir for what it always truly was, turning the dark, menacing hunger at the core of the genre into opulent, oppressive gaudiness. Welles captures the essence of a visual storytelling meant to convey, at the center, an artificial theatricality that had always centered noir and given it its wings but which was often left unstated or unexplored in the genre. Here, the atmosphere seeps off the screen. The camera angles are lurid and garish, intentionally distorted for maximum effect. Characters exist more as shadows than real people. The music is big and booming in the doomiest possible way, like Black Sabbath playing Bach. Everything noir, the mood, the atmosphere, the implicit visual definition of character, gender, and race, is taken to the next level and rendered self-consciously, grandly, constructed, the product of artifice. Welles takes the fewest possible pains here to dilute his visuality or convey its realism –  he doesn’t care, because he knows noir was never about reality but about the stuff of nightmares masquerading as reality. Welles bends the masquerade and reveals more fully the nightmarish of the noir as its true core only hindered before-hand by the limits of Hollywood daring. As he saw it (as he always had in his anger at Hollywood), tinseltown was keeping the noir form realizing its true self, and he was here to save the day.

And by casting himself as an obsessive, oppressive detective propping up those around him,  manipulating crimes and crime scenes, and planting evidence to make scenes appear as he wants them to, Welles subversively and openly comments on his role as a filmmaker who spends the entire film behind the scenes, as his character does in the film, pulling the strings of the story and defining it, constructing it and propping it up, with his direction. Quite literally then he explores the bounds of visual construction and the artifice at the core of noir by having himself serve as both a director constructing a fake noir film and a character constructing the details that might appear in a noir film in his “real” life –  murder, obsession, passion, danger, corruption. In doing so Welles blends the two, the fakery and the reality, by having his character do what Welles the director does in making a film. Thereby, Welles explores the lie that is film noir, the lie of a film he is making, to match the lies of the character he plays, while still upholding the emotional effect of noir filmmaking to scare and unnerve with that lie and myth, as he upholds the agency of his own character to do the same.

In turn, Welles’ gaudy craftmanship constructs the film’s grandness. It is big in characters and filled with bigger stylistic flourishes. It’s as if Welles is demanding to be heard in his textbook of defining, as any noir would, his characters and his narrative by his visual moodiness and the architectural atmospherics of the film’s sound-scape rather than any sense of reality or logic. Many of the performances are broad and veer close to over-acting and he enhances and distorts the visual reality around them to convey a story not of this world. His time spent on Shakespeare and in the theater, shows here. With his imposing size, Welles himself almost seems inhuman here in his role. The manner in which he plays around with shadow, editing, and camera angles behind-the-camera backs up the over-the-top and unnatural storytelling common in silent films and Welles’ manner of defining characters through the purer emotions found in such silent films meant to capture dreams and nightmares rather than reality. It’s the last great “classic” film noir precisely because it takes the tropes and norms of a film noir to their logical extent and transforms them from subtle guidelines to oppressive rules, inflicting an almost violent level of control on the audience. In this sense, Touch of Evil is as much a case study in a director trying out genre filmmaking and specific overblown moods as it is a story or narrative film.

The film opens with a shot of a bomb in close-up and placed into a car; the audience is not given a light intro to quell the darkness of the proceedings to come, but a warning. In a masterfully dark continuous tracking shot, one of the most famous in all film, we follow two couples, one in a car now with a bomb in the trunk, and the other being Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), who will become our hero, and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh). The shot follows these two couples, headed in the same direction, by highlighting the Vargas’ passage from one end of the US-Mexican border to the other, while maintaining a position on the couple in the car, as they enter in and out of the frame from in front of and behind the Vargas’. The way the shot is constructed forebodes the effect of the explosion in a manner which is extravagant in its meticulous orchestration. We get a camera which passes through people and sinks down into the streets before it rises above to glide over the border town. The whole thing plays out like organized chaos, the product of careful planning and stagecraft.

Most of all though, his camera gives us a place, realized in full like a dreamscape viewed by a detached observer from above and below, a place populated by mystery and bright, extravagant lights masking a seedy perpetual darkness. It winds in and out of the location, capturing it in full, all the more telling for its emphasis on the border where the film stakes its morality. The bomb, as we quickly learn though, was planted by Hank Quinlan (Welles), a corrupt US detective looking to incite racial tension and catching Vargas, who has been visually caught up in the border tension through his own crossing the border along with the car, the crossfire. The car explosion disrupts the Vargas’ kiss, merely its first trick in a long film that disrupts their love.

The film maintains its foreboding atmosphere further on, turning from dark to chillingly horrific, as exemplified through the scene where Quinlan kills Uncle Joe Grandy, a local Mexican mob boss. This scene, like the film’s opening, shows Welles’ key ability to orchestrate chaos. The lighting displays this by moving between mildly to unnaturally dark on a dime, as if Welles as Quinlan had just snapped a finger. The in-human effect of the eyes displayed on Joe Grandy’s corpse also add to this effect, as they are, when shown in a quick shot immediately followed by a shot of Susan’s face and bathed in the cycling of the lights, chillingly artificial. They are obviously fake, like props from a theater, but in this hellish nightmare-scape of a scene Welles has constructed, they’re like props from the devil, here played with Welles’ thick baritone and famous jowels, placed onto a dead man just to mock him further. Here, more than anywhere, Welles is exploring the limits of the noir by reading it past itself and producing the operatic grandiosity bordering on cheeky campiness the genre staked its claim on.

And what of Vargas? The film is about his attempt to overturn Quinlan, a corrupt police officer. Yet it’s about much more – it’s about relenting darkness and decay, a sense of moral destruction brought on by a white male using and abusing non-whites throughout the film for his purposes. The film is set on the US-Mexican border and doesn’t depict the relations between the two countries positively, with the US as the abuser and Mexicans willing to get involved if it means they can survive one more day. But no one is spared. The film lacks a moral figure, excepting Vargas of course, a white Mexican who still lacks any power in the US until the film’s end, where, perhaps, his ability to pass and be both Mexican and white, as well as his cross-ethnic marriage to an American, reflects a mid-’50s statement of positive race relations and the benefits of ethnic heterogeneity and bonding.

The film can’t truly be excused from depicting the only white Mexican as the only heroic one, and for that matter, for casting a white actor as a Mexican so he would be accepted by Hollywood audiences. But then it’s only the white Mexican who is moral in the film’s America too, with corrupt cops battling corrupt drug users in a palpable and even fatalistic vision of race relations. The film plays a little too much into the classic “we’re both equally bad” trope to seem progressive today. It almost has to depict this for the form and to fulfill Welles’ interest in hyper-realizing noir convention –  the US-Mexican border in the film could never be anything but a gaping wound left out to rot, covered perhaps by a bandage that addressed the symptoms but not the cause. But for 1958 the thought of depicting a white male abusing non-whites for his own purpose in a critical light was almost unheard of.

Beyond this, the film, visually, openly renders the opening bombing by Quinlan as a disruption of not any kiss but the Vargas’ interracial kiss. It explodes right as they are about to lock lips and visually bond their races, but instead their embrace is invaded by the image of the car having itself crossed the border to bleed together nations, and paid the price for it under Quinlan’s corrupt vision. It’s obvious that Heston in make-up looks white today, but in 1958 the appearance of a kiss, and genuine love, between a white woman and a man who is supposed to be, and was seen as, Mexican was scary and subversive. Quinlan here wants to disrupt their love, their act of racial together-ness, so that he can control racial bonding for his own purposes by taking power over men on both sides. The film then certainly takes a positive view toward what was then racial miscegenation, albeit heavily marred by its use of racial stunt-casting. Plus, the film certainly acknowledges Vargas’ uneasy situation, a person who doesn’t truly fit in within either culture and who is always judged for it. He doesn’t completely pass , and there are real consequences to this for his character. If the film plays in racialized casting, it also tries to subvert it, albeit uneasily. Either way, the subject matter ensures the film’s relevance to today, even as it exists in a sort of perpetual dreamscape out of time, or at least a demented world we want to tell ourselves isn’t reality – the border, for all our supposed progress, is an even greater lesion today. The brilliance of the introduction is not surface spectacle but subterranean dissidence, of border crossing and transgression at an imaginative level rather than purely a geographic one, and of people and a camera linked yet separable, hovering in unstable quasi-harmony.

All the while, one figure, Tanya, a Mexican female and old acquaintance of Quinlan who operates on the border, watches over everything with an air of mystery. She knows Quinlan and is the first to see through him, but she stands back. Her role is to observe, and we get the sense she’s been beaten down by a society that has no room for her, left to be a loner and remember only what she knew of people in the past. But she does, after-all, act. She simply does it in her own way. She watches the border, trying to mend its wounds, seeing what she can do as a sort of spirit guardian and remaining privy to all the decay and corruption circling around it. It’s hard to walk away from the film thinking positively about border relations or US efforts to control the border which turn into abuse and egotist power grabs.

Welles leaves all this out to dry and fester some more with his subjective camera. He elevates the border to near mythic quality, although it’s more decay than wonder. His expressionist camera gives it an uneasy vibe, constantly tilted and off-center, a world where our fantasies and nightmares come to rot before being let out again. Just as he visually dichotomizes the physical border and bleeds the two  sides into one another, he does the same with the relationship between Vargas and Quinlan to reflect the power dynamics between them. In the finale, the intercutting between Vargas and Quinlan mirrors the manner in which the two have struggled throughout the film to retain their power and, in a sense, end the other’s. The cutting between the two, with Quinlan above the bridge, and Vargas below tailing him, is mixed in with certain shots which artfully include both of the two individuals in relation to each other, enhancing the suspense as we are able to witness the gap between the two closing when Quinlan calls out to Vargas. Welles uses low camera angles to make characters seem more powerful or high ones to render them deserving of pity, but all the while we’re not sure if he is giving us what will happen or what we expect to happen in a noir.

In this final scene, Welles slowly moves from depicting himself as Quinlan via low angle to high angle, making him less imposing and rendering him, after he had spent the film trying to attain power over the Mexican side of the border, powerless now to the Mexican Vargas. But it also, initially, makes us wonder if this is a red herring – just one of Quinlan’s tricks as he’s taken over the film’s camera to lie to us visually. For, whatever fate Quinlan may face, men will always fight over the fluid space of borders and try to abuse and use others for their control. Quinlan’s damage will live on, even if Quinlan doesn’t. After all, Quinlan is Welles, the egotistic director famed for his controlling over other people and his rage and torrential anger at being controlled by the Hollywood system around him. In this sense, it’s curious whether Welles actually sees himself as a Vargas, tormented by the Quinlans of Hollywood while struggling to fit in(after all, Welles’ solution to Hollywood’s control was to leave America, Quinlan’s domain, and he like Vargas found that the American Quinlans of the world had a powerful reach even far outside their nominal spectre of influence). Or perhaps casting himself as the villain who could have been a noble police officer in another life was an act of confession, a realization that his own ego had made him an oppressive, difficult man who strove to control others at any cost. Then Vargas becomes who he could have been, or who he was, and Quinlan who he became. Either way, even if Welles is out to critique Quinlan, it’s hard not to see how he still valuates Quinlan as a serious threat, a figure, like Welles himself, to be reckoned with, and someone, in perhaps Welles’ greatest commentary on the notion of the oppressive director, who cannot die even in being killed.

Curiously, Touch of Evil is often seen as a sort of last breath for the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking. While it came at the time of end of classical Hollywood filmmaking, this film is anything but classical Hollywood in sensibility –  it moves beyond its classicism and connects Hollywood editing to pre-Hollywood expressionist filmmaking and explores how film noirs always should have been and in spirit were more expressionist than Hollywood but were simply too afraid to admit it.  While the norm during the Old Hollywood period of American filmmaking was to favor natural lighting, editing, and camerawork to convey a real world un-intruded by the filmmaker’s gaze, Welles stomps all over the landscape of his camera. He picks it up, smashes it around, crushes it to tiny pieces, and puts it back only when it reflects the world he sees, one depicted here with characters who exist in shades of black and white and a landscape which is even less subtle. This is what he saw as the truth of film noir and its implicit bending of social reality, for instance through its use of light and dark to reflect on race, as it bent visual reality –  he simply thinks the genre never had the courage of its convictions to truly take this core to its logical extent. Welles knows no such fear and is entirely willing and committed to doing exactly that.  There’s little that’s “natural” about Touch of Evil. After its release, Welles would direct again (he still had at least one masterpiece in him, but it would have to wait 16 years). But he was already too fed up with the world around him to care what they could say about his film or how they would view it. If this film is the last true classic film noir, it directly flaunts the limits of noir and moves beyond them. Of course, this only encouraged Hollywood to tamper with Welles’ film here, as they had done to him before, most famously with The Magnificent Ambersons. In this regard,  Touch of Evil  was as out of touch with the world around it as Welles was, and it’s all the better for it.

Score: 10/10

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