06 May, 2009

Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)

The story behind Touch of Evil, the final film of the film noir genre, is perhaps more interesting than the convoluted plot of marijuana smugglers, dynamite explosives, and illegal immigrants. Slated as a B film, Touch of Evil was to star Orson Welles alongside Charlton Heston, but confused Heston thought that Welles was also attached to direct, and being the superstar that he was, he pulled his weight and the studio made it happen. Thus Welles filmed this so-called masterpiece, which ranks #21 on the TSPDT? list, using extremely long takes (now considered cutting edge) in order to keep the film under its original budget.

Without Welles's touch, this movie most certainly would have been forgotten by now. A sensational plot about lesbians in leather jackets smuggling mary jane across the Mexican border, Charlton Heston in brownface with a mustache, Janet Leigh's hysterics, a cartoonish Dennis Weaver gnawing at the scenery--the first hour, excluding the famous long take of the opening shot, adds up to a bunch of boredom.

Only one thing keeps the film from falling to pieces: Orson Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan, a limping, obese, slurring police detective that you just know is dripping with sleaze and probably behind all the murder and corruption in town. A recovering alcoholic, he's now addicted to candy bars, stuffing them into his huge, hairy face as he grimaces and leers. His town is a filthy one, bordering on lawlessness, and he knows that only he can regulate it, assigning himself full impunity to execute methods, no matter how unorthodox, for bringing justice to his kingdom.

He acts on hunches that he intuits from his crippled leg, which isn't exactly something we'd grant sovereignty to, though we never see it actually make a mistake. The limb is the perfect symbol for showcasing Quinlan. On the one hand, in the vein of wicked witches with crooked noses and leering maniacs with hunchbacks and scars, the broken leg is a sign of his deformity, what separates him from full, normal humanity, the most obvious physical manifestation of his unattractiveness. On the other hand, he received the injury while intercepting a bullet and saving his partner's (Joseph Calleia) life, an heroic act the partner claims is only outshone by his success in climbing on the wagon and freeing himself from alcoholism. The limp is unsightly, but it was caused by valor, just as his obesity is monstrous yet, we realize, only developed when he began replacing drinks with less harmful sweets. Finally, the leg is a sign of his power; it supplies him with clairvoyant knowledge, which is regarded and acted upon as gospel though we can choose to dismiss it as superstition. The impulsive hunches his leg stirs up have more power than the words of any informant.

And so we have a complex, compelling antagonist--racist, deceitful, and egotistical, yet dedicated to justice, capable of heroism, and full of determination.

I hesitate to talk about the end of this film, which is the only part that redeems it and makes it somewhat worth calling a masterpiece. Though my reviews are often full of spoilers, to talk in depth about the beautifully shot, Shakespearean climax seems to cross even my line. So, stop reading now if you want.

A murder occurs as part of an elaborate setup, and the partner whose job has been to plant key, implicating evidence that has always led to convictions finally discovers a real piece of crucial evidence at the crime scene. The evidence, a cane, however, indicts Quinlan, who has always given the orders to plant the suspects his leg fingers. Ironically, the film's first real clue points to the one responsible for all the fake clues.

The partner, despite trusting in Quinlan for all these years, despite having knowingly participated in many illegal activities in pursuit of ending crime, decides that murder is too far. Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Heston), a no-nonsense, straight laced investigator, offers the partner a means of pursuing true justice unsullied by evil, and so they work together to bring down Quinlan, using official police procedures.

The partner tries to procure a confession while wearing a wire. Quinlan, pissdrunk after reaching the breaking point and falling off the wagon, sneers at him in disgust. "What is that you're wearing?" He shakes his head. "Guilt."

You shouldn't have killed him, the partner says. You're a cop. Cops kill, Quinlan responds. It's a dirty job. "You didn't have to make it dirty," his partner says.

Quinlan discovers the bug and the deception from his best friend, and now aware that his old and proven inquisitional methods are against the new and weak yet honest methods of Vargas, he clumsily shoots the partner whose life he once saved, getting blood on his hands in the process.

He stumbles to the filthy Rio Grande to cleanse his apparent sin. An agent of the new justice kills him, and from the bridge above, the blood of his slain friend drops back onto his hands. Defeated and dead, he collapses into the dreck.

An onlooker--a prostitute he once loved (Marlene Dietrich)--watches his swollen corpse with more disappointment than sadness. Isn't someone going to come and take him away, she asks Vargas. In a few minutes, someone will do it, he responds. The body floats, filthy, sad, and perhaps too undignified. Would you like to say some words, Vargas asks the woman. "He was some kind of a man," she says. "What does it matter what you say about people?"

Which is the point of the movie, what makes it a phenomenal film despite so many things going against it. In a cinematic world of hoo-hahing nemeses with laundry lists of violent sins and neurotic motivations paired against strong, handsome heroes with one or two forgivable flaws that never get in the way of saving the day, Hank Quinlan joins the ranks of more realistic characters like Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood, the flawed, complicated, ugly, pathetic, but not flat-out evil humans who inhabit the real world. He has only a touch of evil. Unloved and unloving, disgusting yet sympathetic, driven by virtue but tarnished by the filth all around him, Quinlan is a true and honest portrait of a dishonest man.

Touch of Evil
d/w: Orson Welles
(Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Joseph Calleia)


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