Filed Under: Cinema
An exploration of Night Man style perversity from the 1950's.
Headlight, horizontal slash, Janet Leigh's breasts, fire.
Palm fronds and struts from an oil rig grow out of Orson Welles' character, Hank Quinlan. Also, Joseph Calliea's head pops out of his chest, like some kind of mutant. Welles was a master at composition that commented on the narrative and its characters.
Dennis Weaver as the Night Man.
Chief, I'd like to prove to you I'm not talking out the back of my neck.
"Look, a pigeon egg." Welles was not afraid to have fun with a cinematic non sequitur or two.
It's difficult to really analyze a work of art that you know was messed around with by third parties.
Because Mozart could not finish his Requiem Mass before his death, it was completed by Franz Xaver Sussmayr. While Mozart's greatness still shines through, it is still irksome. Which elements were by Mozart? Which were by Sussmayr?
We can't be too angry at Sussmayr for tinkering around with the music. After all, Mozart died and he was just trying to complete it for a client. Of course, the client was trying to abscond with the credit for the Mass himself, but who knows if Sussmayr knew this in advance?
It is an entirely different matter when a work of art is fiddled with by third parties for other reasons. For instance, there was the corporate suit who, after just a viewing or two, thought that he could do better than Orson Welles and improve on his work.
So the suit hired Harry Keller to do extra scenes and generally muck around with Touch of Evil. Keller later went on to edit such great cinematic masterpieces as Stripes with Bill Murray and Transylvania 6-5000 with Jeff Goldblum and Ed Begley, Jr.
It's as if Pope Gregory decided that the Sistine Chapel just didn't have enough "umph" and hired a house painter to slap in some extra stick figures of Jesus on the side. "Not enough crosses." Or something.
Touch of Evil was released three times: 1958, 1976, and finally, a "restored" version in 1998 based on a 58 page memo that Orson Welles had written to the studio - a desperate memo requesting various changes that were ignored by the suits in the 1958 version.
Yet even with this new "restoration" based on the memo, it is difficult, if not impossible, to truly judge exactly what Welles was up to. As a filmmaker I can tell you, you can't edit through memo. You have to be there, see the results, tweak and change. It is all timing and flow. Which image flows into the next? This is what makes or breaks a film.
Sadly, Touch of Evil is a broken film, a Venus De Milo. Who the hell knows what the real product would have been? Curses and hell to the ravages of time and the meddling of Lilliputians.
Still, the greatness shines through.
Touch of Evil is a much more watchable film than Citizen Kane. This film constantly moves with tracking shots, car shots, and whip pans.
It touches on themes of racism, the border between Mexico and the U.S., police corruption, sexual perversity, and of course, Janet Leigh's body. It is a circus of a film, and immensely enjoyable.
The narrative follows Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent, played by Charlton Heston with some black hair die and heavy makeup. He's on a honeymoon with his wife, Suzie, played by Janet Leigh. For some strange reason they are honeymooning in a rat-trap of an unnamed border town that features a corrupt sheriff named Hank Quinlan, played by Orson Welles.
Some of the elements within it have aged quite appreciably - the furtive mentions of "marijuana," and the concerns by all the characters that the bombing on the border could cause an "international incident" seem quite quaint.
This sort of thing happens all the time on the border, these days.
But I, for one, do not believe that movies should attempt to be "timeless." They should be grounded in the time and place within which they are made. After all, there is no way to escape a film aging - so I say, embrace it. And embrace this, Welles does. It is filled with 50's rock music, and torpedo breasts, and snips about "Panchos" and fears of miscegenation. It is a film grounded in its own time and place, and it is the better for it.
And then there is the bad guy.
Welles' Quinlan likes to plant evidence on suspects, justifying this procedure as necessary. Like all of Welles' best characters, he is a Faustian creature making Faustian bargains.
Much in film criticism has been made of the opening shot of Touch of Evil, which begins with a closeup of a ticking bomb placed into a car, moves across the border from Mexico to the United States, and ends with a kiss between Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh's characters just as the bomb explodes. It is a long tracking shot lasting some three minutes, and considered by filmmakers the world over as the tour-de-force of crane shots.
But there are better and more subtle tracking shots within the body of the film. Take, for instance, the scene when Welles' character Quinlan confronts a suspect in the bombing, Sanchez, and his lover, the daughter of the bombed victim, in their "love nest" apartment. The shot lasts roughly four and a half minutes and is a prime example of Welles' ability to block a scene with actors and camera in a small, confined space. The camera constantly moves with the actors from area to area; the actors constantly move and jumble and jockey for position within the frame.
Welles was not afraid to throw in a cinematic non sequitur or two. Quinlan finds a pigeon egg and bursts it at just the right time. Zsa Zsa Gabor shows up to play the owner of a strip joint. Marlene Dietrich plays the grande dame of a brothel, and owner of a pianola which "is so old, it's new." Mercedes McCambridge plays a biker dyke, all dressed up in leather. Akim Tamiroff plays a stuttering, toupe-touting Mexican gangster who slaps instead of punches, stresses certain refrains a bit too often to be sincere ("If anything happens to Vargas, my brother is just as good as c-c-convicted!") and ends up dead in a seedy motel room.
And speaking of seedy motels, in one of the most important non sequiturs in the entire film, Dennis Weaver plays a creepy motel staff member who constantly refers to himself as the "Night Man," which hints at the dark and dreamy effect that Welles was really shooting for, but the Lilliputians eternally marred.
Yet despite their best efforts, Touch of Evil is still a great film, fun to watch and worthy of study.
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