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Watch Orson Welles in his 1958 noir masterpiece Touch of Evil and then tell me he was not the greatest actor on the planet.
Get a good look at Welles as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, and then remember that this is a mere 17 years after the 26-year-old babyfaced wunderkind made his mark on Hollywood with a modest little debut film called Citizen Kane.
Touch of Evil popped up recently on the Criterion Channel in a great collection of films featuring soundtracks by Henry Mancini – and not a Pink Panther in sight!
His Touch of Evil soundtrack is brilliant, full of Latin jazz and late 1950s greaser rock, all used to great effect.
I’d actually been eager to see this again. I’ve seen it a few a times – I think the first time, pre-VHS & DVD, was at a free showing at the Superior Public Library, hosted by late librarian Barry Singer.
Or it might have been back in the early 1980s when the NorShor operated as a classic and world cinema movie house.
I’ve seen it several times since the first forgotten viewing, but this was the first time I felt the full moral disgust one should feel by watching the portrayal of the awful, sweaty, obese, corrupt, racist, misogynist pig that is respected cop Hank Quinlan. And that is exactly what Welles wanted from viewers.
Of the character, Welles said he is “a detestable man. The most personal thing I have put in this film is my hatred of the abuse of police power.”
I cannot imagine how this movie went over with audiences in 1958. It’s about as dark as the dark genre of film noir can get, so it is guaranteed those contemporary audiences had never seen anything like it.
It starts with a famous 3 1/2-minute tracking shot, the longest tracking shot in film history until Robert Altman’s 1992 The Player began with an 8-minute tracking shot. The scene plays out to a hot Latin jazz number courtesy of Mancini.
The movie is filled with great shots of interesting faces, such as Joeph Calliea playing Quinlan’s underling and chief booster Detective Pete Menzies (Welles had wanted Lloyd Bridges to play his sidekick, but was very happy with Calliea’s performance – some say it is the best of his very long movie career); the great Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi (Orson Welles once called him “the greatest of all screen actors” – his death face here is not to be missed); starlet Janet Leigh as newlywed Suzy Vargas; Charlton Heston as “cabinet-level” Mexican drug cop Miguel “Mike” Vargas, who Quinlan sees as an inferior rival simply because he is a foreigner; Welles’ regular Joseph Cotten as an amply mustachioed and uncredited coroner; and “guest starring” Marlene Dietrich as a madam with a history with Hank Quinlan, and, finally, Zza Zza Gabor, who has maybe 10 seconds of screen time and no lines, yet still gets her credit because she was dating Universal producer Albert Zugsmith at the time.
What you have to remember as you watch the fat, lumbering, saggy-faced Hank Quinlan as he mumbles and rumbles through this dark film is that Orson Welles was only 43 at the time. My digital edition looked brilliant, and I looked closely when he was in closeup to see if it was makeup making him look so old and fat. It all looks real. But it’s not.
Welles insisted on shooting on location instead of in the studio, as the studio wanted. Venice, Calif., stands in for the fictional Mexican border town of Los Robles, Mexico.
A couple of Hollywood firsts took place in this film because of shooting on location, including being the first Hollywood movie to use the new handheld Éclair Cameflex, and a dialogue scene in a moving car between Heston and popular character actor Mort Mills as District Attorney Al Schwartz, which is the first time such a shot was done in a real moving car instead of a stationary car in front of a projection screen.
If the character of Tana played by Marlene Dietrich seems a bit out of place, the story is that Welles called her at the last minute to play the role, and shooting commenced and finished the same day.
I was puzzled by the scene in which a group of Mexican punks abduct Mrs. Vargas (Janet Leigh). We’ve already been introduced to the male punks, but a trio of young women appear in this scene, led by a very dykey-looking woman who says, “I wanna watch.”
OK. That was weird. Who was that? And why?
After a little research, I found that during filming Welles had lunch with his friend Mercedes McCambridge (who he once described as “the world’s greatest living radio actress” – seems he was deeply into superlatives – and asked her to make the appearance as the female punk. Fifteen years later, she would provide the voice of Pazuzu in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (the story is that she swallowed raw eggs, smoked heavily and chugged whiskey to develop the raw sound of her voice, while Friedkin had her tied to a chair to further provide the illusion of the demon struggling against restraints).
Much has been made of the fact that Heston is playing a Mexican. Big deal. That’s how studios worked.
Heston had just come off playing Moses in the Biblical blockbuster The Ten Commandments. He was box office.
It is, after all, called acting. If he can play Moses, why not a Mexican with an American accent?
When he learned that his next film was to be Touch of Evil without a director assigned to it, and that Welles had been hired to play the heavy (literally and figuratively), Heston is the one who suggested to the studio that they hire Welles to direct.
And it was Welles who changed Heston’s character from a white district attorney to a Mexican cop.
Heston had not yet shown his ugly NRA-conservative self to the world. So I’m not even getting involved in that one, except to say that if Heston hadn’t voiced his opinion on having Wells direct, we might not have this strange and wonderful film.
Everything that was praised in his 1941 directorial debut is fully on display here, but now Welles firmly confirms that he is master of the medium.