Thursday, February 24, 2011

Touch of Evil

Spoiler alert-o-meter: 53-year-old spoilers ahead.

Movies used to be designed, shot, and edited to be viewed on a movie screen. Today, movies seem to be made to be watched on decidedly smaller screens. Evidence of this is reflected in the faster cutting within scenes and the generally manic, disjointed nature of most Hollywood movies.

Have you ever gone to a movie with lots of action and fast cutting and stumbled out of the theater in a daze, thinking the movie made no sense? That’s because your eyes couldn’t adjust to each new shot before it was replaced by the next one. On a movie screen, your eye moves around the screen to discern the focus of each shot. On a TV screen, laptop monitor, or a miniature iPad/iPod screen you basically stare at one point in space and let a movie’s narrative shuffle on by without you having to scan around and get your grip on the action. In other words, the action comes to you – mainlined you could say – without you having to think much about it.

So, watching an old movie on the big screen comes as something of a revelation, a shock, no matter what movie you’re watching. To see an Orson Welles movie, it’s even more thrilling. Screened at the Capital Theater in Arlington (DVD projection, not a 35 mm print), Touch of Evil crackles with Welles' signature deep focus composition, wide angles, meaningfully cluttered shots (what the film students used to call mise-en-scène), and voices overlapping on a soundtrack often dubbed in post production.

It's a film noir fever dream. Probably the last movie to be considered noir as it came out in 1958 at the end of the era, it showcases the classic noir elements of vivid black and white cinematography, on-location photography, and cynical characters. In Touch of Evil we've got corrupt, racist border town cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) who has been dealing dirty all his life.

Touch of Evil chronicles Quinlan's downfall over the course of one day, as he attempts to bring down up-and-coming Mexican do-gooder cop Miguel (Mike to you) Vargas. Vargas is played by Charlton Heston with his signature Hest-rionics dialed down to about a four. Or maybe it just seems that way playing the straight man to Welles' Quinlan, a festering, bloated recovering alcoholic who seals his own fate when he falls off the wagon and implicates himself at the scene of a crime by leaving his cane behind.

Then there's Dennis Weaver as a motel clerk who...I can't explain it, but Heston's performance is nuanced and subtle compared to Weaver's. His character inspiration comes from one of those little dogs who pants and trots and whose eyes belie an internal terror. Mr. Weaver here invents the term manic. He overacts to such a degree that I wanted to extricate him from the movie and plunk him down into some Three Stooges flick.

Elsewhere there's Janet Leigh. Leigh plays Susan, Vargas' very blond wife. Vargas and Susan are newlyweds just trying leave for a honeymoon, but their reverie is interrupted by a double murder at the border crossing. While Vargas remains sidetracked investigating, Susan is kidnapped and brought out to the remote motel that employs Weaver’s clueless night man. Meanwhile, Vargas witnesses Quinlan frame a young Mexican man for the double murder and this sends him on a righteous crusade to bring Quinlan down.

Welles directs Touch of Evil like his life depended on it. He stages a virtuosic, uninterrupted opening crane shot that lasts about 3 and a half minutes ending in a car explosion (the double murder). He starts a scene with a close up of two shot glasses atop a bar, then follows them getting walked to a nearby table as the camera moves back to frame the rest of the bar. What other director would do this in one shot? None director.

Welles puts the camera on the hood of a car and lets Charlton Heston and Mort Mills (as an assistant DA) drive through a street no wider than an alley at high speeds instead of shooting a cheesy rear screen projection. A good noir doesn't just show you the dirt, it pushes your face in it. Touch of Evil is dusty and oily from tequila and hopped up on MaryJane and doesn't shy from seedy whore houses and garbage-filled canals.

Many familiar faces pepper the movie, including Zsa Zsa Gabor as a showgirl and Marlene Dietrich as a madame, who's worth seeing for some great dialogue ("He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?"). Then some actors who worked often with Welles, including Joseph Cotton, Akim Tamiroff, and Ray Collins.

If you rent the DVD, ensure it's the most recent version, which has been restored to Welles' original specs after Universal took the film from him, recut it, and even reshot some of it with another director. This latest version was reconstructed based on Welles' notes. There's so much to like in this lost classic, that I won't give away any more details. Just rent it, and enjoy. And if you get a chance to watch it projected on a movie screen, so much the better.

Here's the famous opening crane shot:


Theater location: Capital Theater, Arlington, Sunday, February 20th, 3:15 matinee. Price $7.00. Viewed with Liz. Snacks--RJ's Raspberry Licorice Log.

Coming Attractions:



Liz's Mom said...

This gritty review of this excellent film, is very fine indeed. What an interesting comparison you make... old style movie making for the big screen versus the fast paced cutting for films destined to be DVD's.

Well done!

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's Mom. Have you ever seen Touch of Evil? You and Liz's Dad might enjoy it.

Liz's Mom said...

Yes, we have seen the film and thought it was great. We saw the restored version on a DVD. It was interesting to read your review
and find we agree with everything you say about it.

It must have been quite an experience for you to see it on a big screen.

Phil Beloin Jr. said...

Heston, I think, called it the best B movie every made...I think it rates a lot higher than that.

Dell Smith said...

Just shows how film noir, and Welles, were ghettoized to B-Movie status. A good movie is a good, regardless of pedigree.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

You are a very reliable narrator. This movie sounds amazing. I will have to check it out. :)

Myerla said...

'Then there's Dennis Weaver as a motel clerk who...I can't explain it' - this sums up Hopper's performance really, utterly unexplainable.

Other than that, the film is superb, the opening scene in patroller is stunning.