Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

 On the occasion of Welles birthday--a short piece (warning: story and plot twists discussed in detail)
A Touch defensive

Orson Welles' Touch of Evil has a great subject: the fall of a cop and flawed human being. Everything points to his corruption and eventual descent, including the border town's garbage-choked streets and congested canals--a vast web of concrete and asphalt, all lines converging on Captain Hank Quinlan's (Welles') corpulent carcass.

Always argued that Charlton Heston was not only not miscast, he was perfectly cast as Mexican drug enforcement officer Miguel Vargas--that one should look not at Heston's Caucasian skin but at his frankness, his aura of arrogant righteousness. Yes, I know Heston was reportedly attached to the project and suggested Welles (or Welles was approached and suggested the book, you pick the Touch origins story you prefer)--but it was Welles who rewrote the script and Welles who inserted a Mexican protagonist, adding the element of racism to an already volatile mix. Heston's Vargas is an unlikeable, charmless man (even the toothy smile set against swarthy skin is a calculated affront to American viewers) who cares more about justice than his wife; he's the straight man to Quinlan's malevolence, the stiff rubber sheet against which Quinlan hurls his quips and barbed asides. You need to see beyond Heston's cluelessness and Welles' charismatic performance to realize that it's Heston who's the hero and Welles the villain.

But that's Welles for you; he starts out with a relatively simple moral proposition--the end does not justify the means--and stacks the deck against it, to the point where he plays (or, rather, incarnates (in every sense of the word)) the opposing view in the form of Quinlan: makes him funny, makes him magic, makes his damnation all but tragic (by way of contrast, Vargas' vindication is a relatively joyless affair). It's as if Welles was saying "if I can convince you that justice--priggish, unappealing justice--should prevail over clever clever evil--then I've done my job." 

Not all of Welles' effects are outlandish, or even obvious. The scene at the bar where Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) offers a shot of whiskey and Quinlan in his booth replies "I don't drink" is a beautifully understated little pas de deux, with Grandi dancing like a devil imp round the orotund Quinlan, needling him, and Quinlan's right hand creeps up to the shotglass almost unconsciously, like a spider to its prey. Quinlan repeats his statement ("I don't drink") for the umpteenth time, then realizes his glass is empty; the camera cuts to a high vantage point and watches impassively as the smirking Grandi leaves Quinlan to order another shot (a double). Suddenly it's Grandi who looks like a spider, Quinlan who looks like an entangled fly.

Then there's the scene where Quinlan confronts his superiors about accusations that he planted the dynamite. While they ask their questions, Quinlan is distracted, gazing out the window and noting a bird's nest on the sill with an egg in it; when Vargas drops his bombshell--that he knows the dynamite comes from Quinlan's ranch--Quinlan's hand convulses, crushing the egg. Quinlan's left with dripping goo on his fingers looking for a chance to wipe it off, and--beautiful moment--Vargas offers his handkerchief. Offers, in effect, one last chance to 'come clean.'

Touch isn't all flash moves and shock cuts and grotesque imagery; some of it is superb theater, all of it part of Welles' intricate, overarching scheme: to visualize entropy, to dramatize the coming apart of a man who inspires so many knotted feelings of repulsion and regret and pity you can't articulate any of it with much clarity; when Quinlan's former love Tanya (Marlene Deitrich) is asked to try, she just shrugs and says "He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?" Which when you think about it is about as resigned and fatalistic a closing line as any in modern cinema. 

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