I’ve had a horrendous case of writer’s block this week, trying to come up with something original to say about Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil. As I noted last August, it’s practically impossible to say anything that hasn’t already been said about Welles and his work. After all, there are countless books and movie blogs rightly singing their praises, and Touch of Evil has long been regarded as a great of the film noir genre. But I’ve got to add my $.02 because Detroit Film Theatre is showing the film on Saturday, January 14 at 4:00 p.m. as part of their DFT 101 series. So I’ll just list why I’m so looking forward to this opportunity to see it as it was meant to be seen:
- Touch of Evil is arguably the last in the film noir classic cycle. Welles’ own Citizen Kane is considered an important influence on what would eventually come to be known as film noir, and it’s clear that he had mastered the elements of film noir style, exemplified by his use of chiaroscuro lighting and subjective camerawork. Welles also wrote the film’s script, which contains most of film noir’s thematic elements. A hero (Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics officer named Mike Vargas) lost in a labyrinth of shadiness and duplicity, shadowed streets, corruption, and seedy characters. In Welles’ hands, it’s a feast for the eyes.
- Welles also stars in this, his last American film, taking on the role of corrupt, alcohol-soaked cop Hank Quinlan. Quinlan’s jurisdiction is Los Robles, a seedy town on the Texas side of the U.S.-Mexico border where all sorts of crime occurs, but Quinlan seems to be the worst. We see him slowly losing even the pretension of moral authority, as he conspires against Vargas, endangers Vargas’ wife (Janet Leigh), plants evidence, drinks to excess, and generally acts as judge and jury, convicting anyone he doesn’t like, usually a Mexican.
- It will be a joy to see the film’s opening sequence, a three-minute, 20-second long take, on the big screen. We are shown a bomb being armed and concealed in the trunk of a Cadillac, which we then follow over the border in an amazing continuous shot, that ends with the explosion of the bomb.
- As Tana (Marlene Dietrich) might have said about the 1958 version of Touch of Evil, “Honey, you’re a mess.” Welles wasn’t allowed to control the film’s final cut. The studio’s version placed the credits over the long take, added a musical soundtrack to it, and added some scenes to the rest of the film — apparently the film’s plot was deemed to intricate for the average moviegoer. Thankfully, DFT will be showing the 1998 restoration, which was based on a painstaking 58-page memo Welles sent to the head of Universal Studios (who ignored it), so that what we see on Saturday will be as near to what Orson Welles intended as possible. Don’t miss it!