Well, lookee what we have here…another Shamedown. Anyone who’s new to the blog and is wondering what the heck this is all about, please visit Cinema Shame.
Orson Welles’s relationship with Hollywood was always a contentious one, but by the late nineteen-fifties, a few things were changing. A lot of the old guard executives had died or retired, the Production Code was beginning to relax, and television was making movie moguls very nervous. It was in this new world that Welles fashioned his 1958 film, Touch of Evil. Called by many critics the sleaziest good film ever made, it shows Orson at a time when the effects of his larger-than-life persona were beginning to weigh heavy on him. Literally–he was around three hundred pounds when he made this movie. While Touch of Evil is a well-made film, it’s also a divisive one. Plus, it’s the last film Welles made in America for a major studio, and it’s all because of Charlton Heston.
The film opens at night in a bustling town on the United States-Mexico border. People just walk across the border and get checked out by the border guards because this is their turf and they’re used to it. On this particular night, Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh) and her new husband, Mike (Charlton Heston) come over to the American side to have a chocolate soda. At the same time an older gentleman and a young lady are driving across, and the young lady complains of a ticking in her head. The border guards smirk because they think she’s probably drunk or on something, and the couple drives on.
To everyone’s shock and horror, however, the car blows up. Mike, who is a Mexican drug enforcement agent, goes to check it out. Susie heads back to their hotel. All bystanders are looking at the blazing car and talking about how it must have been a bomb, and in the midst of all this, Police Captain Hank Quinlen (Orson Welles) shows up.
Oh boy, does he show up. Hank fills the shot with girth to spare, and his eyes are those of someone who has seen way too much, even for a law enforcement officer, and nothing impresses him. He wants to know what side of the border the bomb was planted on, and when he sees Mike, gets languidly territorial. Mike’s in America and has no jurisdiction, which is all good. Hank thinks the explosion was caused by dynamite, and Mike is skeptical, but these two aren’t done yet.
Meanwhile, Susie is met in the street by a young man named Pancho (Val de Vargas), who tells her he has a message for her husband. He wants Susie to follow him, because there’s something she needs to see. Yeah, nothing creepy going on here. Susie goes off with Pancho, who takes her to the Ritz Hotel. There she meets Grandi (Amir Tamiroff), a local mob boss who wants Mike to stay away from his brother in Mexico City.
Susie goes back to the hotel to change, except that there’s no shade on the room window. So she turns out the light, only that creep, Pancho shines a flashlight in on her. When Mike comes up, they make plans to leave. Susie wants to go to an American motel because she thinks she’ll be safer there. Guess what happens next? Yep, Creeper Dude follows her there too, where he and his goons kidnap her.
Mike’s working relationship with Hank ends quickly after Hank frames a kid, Sanchez (Victor Millan), for the bombing. He’s impatient to get back to Susie, but first he goes to the Hall of Records to look at Hank’s past cases. He will also find unexpected allies. Not to ruin anything, but the status quo gets upset very soon and nothing is the same ever again.
When Universal was batting the idea of Touch of Evil around, Charlton Heston, who was already cast as Vargas, suggested Orson Welles direct the film in addition to starring in it. He looked at Hank Quinlen and saw Orson, and the studio reluctantly agreed.
At their first meeting, Welles met Heston dramatically costumed as Othello, presumably sans blackface. Heston and Welles had a good working relationship, brainstorming ideas and sometimes shooting things on the fly, such as the Hall of Records scene, which was filmed in a hotel room.
Nowadays, Touch of Evil receives praise for its wonderful cinematography and place in film history, but some choose to criticize it for not being enough in line with today’s mores. That kind of thing always makes me think of how The Simpsons responded to the Apu controversy:
I understand people’s concerns, but I think it’s a waste of time to criticize works from a presentist standpoint, because it makes whoever does it look petty and myopic. Entertainment of any kind is optional and subjective. If something offends or fails to pique interest, there’s always the handy-dandy off switch.
On one hand, Evil is a masterwork-type film. It does look great. The opening credits is one long boom shot with no cuts. Robert Altman’s eyes probably turned bright green with envy when he first saw it. The film uses the deep focus familiar to Welles’s films. Also like Welles’s other films, Evil was hacked at by the powers that be, this time the ones at Universal, but it was because Welles refused to play ball. He didn’t fix things in the rough cut when Universal wanted him to, and when he finally decided to hop to it, they didn’t want to talk. The version we have today is the studio’s interpretation of Welles’ footage. It didn’t go over all that well, and according to TCM, put the kibosh on Welles redeeming himself in Tinseltown.
It would be interesting to see what Welles would have done with Evil had he been more receptive to Universal’s dictums. As is, it’s the type of movie that might make a viewer want to shower afterwards because it’s so squalid. Tons of drinking, smoking, and drug references, plus every guy in the movie who’s onscreen more than two seconds looks at Janet Leigh like she’s a piece of meat, and they treat her that way, too. It also doesn’t seem to flow sometimes. Variety, always so easy to please, complained that the film lacked cohesion.
As for those so-called racial stereotypes, it is a little odd to see Charlton Heston cast as a Mexican drug enforcement officer. Very odd, actually. It’s not just the dark makeup he wore for the part, but as a Mexican citizen, even if his English is perfect, he doesn’t speak Spanish the way a native speaker would. Oh, no, his Michigan twang is very much intact. I had to sideline my four and a half years of Spanish classes and California nativity to take him seriously as a character at first. And Spanish is one of the easiest languages to speak correctly in terms of pronunciation, because unlike some lexicons we can mention, it’s entirely phonetic.
I didn’t see Heston’s portrayal as reflecting racial stereotypes so much as it was him being typical Heston. He’s the most decent guy in the film, and he’s so steadfast that supporting characters are persuaded to change their minds about what they know. Vargas makes Touch of Evil bearable.
However, Hank as the corrupt, jaded police chief reflects stereotypes of his own. He wants a donut with his coffee, for instance. He doesn’t appear to be questioning witnesses so much as ogling them. He thinks he knows all about everyone he meets. He’s also so familiar with methods of murder that he can get away with what criminals can’t and still be a rock star. He always looks a gasp or two away from a heart attack, and by the end of the film I was hoping something, anything would either set this guy straight or take him out.
Touch of Evil is not my favorite Welles movie, and given the choice, I probably wouldn’t watch it again. I think Third Man is way, way better. However, it does have value in that it shows effective mise-en-scene, character development, and how to build suspense. Heston was proud of their efforts, as he definitely should have been.
Horror is on the way Sunday, as in a symphony of it. Have I piqued anyone’s interest? Thanks for reading, all, and see you then…
Heston, Charlton. In the Arena. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1995