Touch of Evil

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By James Bowman

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[This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of "Crime and Punishment" at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The fifth film in the series, Touch of Evil by Orson Welles, was screened yesterday evening, July 14, 2009. My introduction appears below.]

Last week, in our discussion of A Place in the Sun, we noticed the film’s considerable interest in what its hero was thinking. Where was his heart? The question of his guilt or innocence depended on it, and when the priest concluded, “in your heart was murder,” his verdict was masked by the much more significant fact, cinematically speaking, that in his heart there was love. It was the love for Elizabeth Taylor’s Angela (so the image on the screen of their passionate embrace tells us) that created the “murder” in his heart by driving out his normal human compassion for the drowning Alice. In this sense, in spite of the ostensible claim that justice was done, that movie appears to me to have been designed to defend a moral indulgence of what I like to call “true psychic reality”: in other words, that inner self at whose altar so many of us worship today and whose demands it becomes the project of our lives to gratify. Another obeisance to this new god was offered up recently by the ostensibly Christian governor of South Carolina when he publicly celebrated his discovery of an adulterous “soul mate” in Argentina.

This week we are coming at the question of true psychic reality from another angle. Orson Welles in Touch of Evil of 1958 plays Hank Quinlan, an aging police captain who relies on his “intuition” rather than the law to punish wrong-doing. His absolute belief in his own inner promptings is presented to us critically, in one way, since it leads Quinlan into corruption and murder, and Hollywood had at that point not yet sunk so low as to celebrate these things. But at the same time “intuition” or something like it must form the basis for Quinlan’s only conceivable claim to the tragic stature that Welles, who also directed the film, wants to confer upon him. There is a sort of heroic authenticity to him because he is so completely what he is, and because this has led him to a position of great power and won him the admiration of others – seemingly everyone at first. His fall is presented to us as the fall of a great man, and his greatness is like that of a Homeric hero, in that it is all to do with his power and nothing to do with the morality or civic responsibility that other movies of the period continued to celebrate. Welles was always said to be ahead of his time.

This impression of greatness is created by the film partly through Welles’s performance. Though later in life he became very fat, at this time he was only 42 and comparatively svelte. What we see of him here was created with the help of a fat suit and a lot of makeup, including a false nose, all of which is designed to show us a man, literally, larger than life. Nobody in American movies could do the grandiose better than Welles, and the grandiose in the movies often shows up as the grand. The problem is that Hank Quinlan, despite his size, just isn’t a great enough man for his fall to inspire us with the pity and terror that Aristotle thought appropriate to tragedy. We are often told, especially by the hero-worshiping Sergeant Pete Menzies played by Joseph Calleia, that Quinlan was a great man. Menzies loves him so much – perhaps because he famously “stopped a bullet” that was intended for him – that he has apparently remained determinedly blind to his corruption for decades. The fulcrum on which the plot turns comes only when he himself finds the chief’s cane, left at the murder scene, which confirms the overwhelming evidence that Charlton Heston’s “Mike” Vargas has already presented to him.

But we really have to take Menzies’s word for it about Quinlan’s greatness. Or his and the words of a few others of his admirers. Marlene Dietrich’s Tanya’s summing up in the final lines, “He was some kind of a man,” remains deliberately ambiguous. Perhaps she still sees something of an earlier greatness, but we do not. We only see his venality, his appetite and his animal cunning. Partly to make up for this, perhaps, Welles tries to confer tragic stature on Quinlan not only through his acting but through the sheer artistry of his direction, which is now more celebrated than it was at the time. Once again, Welles was ahead of his time. Indeed, this film was so unconventional by Hollywood’s standards that it was disastrously re-cut by the studio, prompting Welles to write a now-famous 58-page memo to the studio heads which has formed the basis for the reconstruction of the film that was completed in 1998, 40 years after it was released in its studio-garbled form and thirteen years after Welles’s death in 1985. This is the version that we will be seeing this evening.

Those of you who have seen Welles’s Citizen Kane of 1941, which is often spoken of (though not by me) as the greatest film ever made, will probably recognize a lot of the same directorial and photographic tricks, particularly its use of light and shadow to create atmosphere. But there is another similarity between Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil and that lies in the conception of greatness in their central figures, both of them played by the director himself. Both, that is, are great but deeply flawed public men but with an imperfectly hidden human side, a secret sorrow which, to Welles and his admirers seems to make their lives unbearably poignant. In Kane’s case his sentimental weakness was apparently his opera-singing girlfriend but was really the mystery of “Rosebud” revealed in the closing frames of the film. In Quinlan’s case it is the longing for his dead wife whom he can’t help thinking about, drunk or sober, every waking hour.

Such a model of tender-hearted greatness must have been something in the cultural air for artists of the mid-20th century, for the sentiment is also expressed in a poem by W.H. Auden titled “Who’s Who” -

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

A characteristically vulgarized version of the same model is to be found in Michael Mann’s treatment of John Dillinger in Public Enemies. I think this kind of neo-heroic figure with the tender heart exerted the kind of fascination he did and still does – perhaps more on critics than popular audiences – because of the post-war vogue for psychology. Once again, as in A Place in the Sun, it is that secret inner life, the hero’s true psychic reality, which is meant to be the object of our attention, partly if not chiefly on account of the high contrast it makes with the public self, which is accordingly devalued. The film noir, after all, is defined by its high contrasts.

The fallen hero with a sentimental side to him also must have appealed to Welles because he saw himself in the same mold. It wasn’t just his vanity as an actor that led him to play his own hero in both these films. He was in many ways the first – again, ahead of his time – artist-hero of the movie business. Or at least the first in America. We are constantly aware of his directorial presence in the film as the real ce
nter of attention in a way that has since become common, even in commercial movies, but was then quite unusual. The director, that is, is always calling attention to his own artistry, as in the famous opening scene of Touch of Evil which is a three and a half minute tracking shot, the longest in cinema history up to that point. The studio, which in Welles’s view, ruined his picture by re-cutting and re-shooting bits of it to conform more to the conventions of movie story-telling at the time, slapped the opening credits over this mind-boggling (to cinéastes) opening shot, in order to show their contempt for it. To the studio heads, Welles was just “showing off.”

It goes very much against the grain of critical orthodoxy these days, but I think they had a point. Such self-conscious artistry was often in the future to come at the expense of the story, and it does here too. In fact, there isn’t much story to Touch of Evil. Or, rather, what story there is is present only in hints and fragments. We see a bomb being planted in a car in that opening scene, but we never find out for sure who planted it. Or why. Or what it has to do with the film’s main characters and their struggles. The plot against Rudy Linnekar which sets everything in motion actually produces little dramatic conflict of its own and is soon forgotten, along with his exploding car. This is what Hitchcock called “the McGuffin” – the necklace or the secret papers the attempt to obtain which produces all the events of the film without its being of any intrinsic interest. Perhaps the most famous example occurs in Hitchcock’s film of the following year, North by Northwest, where we never do learn what the spies are after, and it somehow never seems very important.

In favor of Welles the artist is the enormous influence he has had on subsequent film-makers, including Hitchcock. You can draw a straight line from the moment when a frantic Vargas announces: “I’m no cop now. I’m a husband!” and starts beating up a bunch of Mexican kids dressed as American “juvenile delinquents,” who seem oddly unprovided with weapons, to the scene of Batman roughing up the Joker in last year’s Dark Knight. Then as now, this must have appealed to Hollywood’s idea of profundity: the cop and bad guy have something in common! They both use violence! Since Welles’s day, of course, this has become a tiresome cliché, but it must have seemed fresh and interesting – rather like psychology – at the time. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out two years later and which also evinced an interest in psychology, might notice the influence of Touch of Evil too. Not only is there in both pictures a lonely motel with a crazy night clerk and only one guest, a woman being terrorized by locals, but even the woman is the same, Janet Leigh.

Andrew Sarris, was quoted as saying of Psycho in Sunday’s New York Times something else that could with equal justice be said of Touch of Evil: “Besides making previous horror films look like variations of Pollyanna, Psycho is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.” In the same way, whatever is going on among the businessmen and criminals of the Texas border town in Touch of Evil – “all border towns bring out the worst in a country” says Vargas to Janet Leigh’s Suzy – is of less interest to the film than the fact that the businessmen and criminals and, yes, the cops too, are all getting mixed up with each other and impossible to tell apart. This is that “public swamp” that Mr. Sarris referred to, and that makes such a poor showing of itself next to the pristine world of private feeling. It also brings up an important point about the position this movie occupies in American cultural history.

As I so often do, I’d like especially to stress the date of this film. To my mind, 1958 stands at the extreme limit of what, up to now in our series, we have called film noir, in deference not only to the French critics who invented the term but also to a whole mythology that has grown up around it, both in American film criticism and in cultural criticism generally. Noir is a term that is instantly understood, even by non-critics, as conveying just this kind of “public swamp” where the bad guys and the good guys get all mixed up together in a tangled web of deception and betrayal in which the only thing that counts is private and personal feelings and the authenticity that they betoken. But I think that true noir film actually died out at around this time – perhaps with Touch of Evil. The noir of the films we have already seen in this series, especially Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, depended absolutely on the popular sense of right and wrong, innocence and guilt, cop and crook, even if its aim was – as, indeed, it very often was – to create in you a sense of sympathy for the crook.

With Touch of Evil we begin to see what has remained true of Hollywood movies from that day to this, namely an abdication of this moral purpose, a truly swamp-like muddying of the distinction between cop and crook and, accordingly, the whole spectrum of moral behavior – which, thus, gradually drops out of American movies in any meaningful sense. Pictures like The Dark Knight or Public Enemies have lost all interest in the ordinary moral dimension of crime and punishment and so have lost what I consider to be an essential connection to the values and rationale of civil authority which alone is what stands between us and – it is not too much to say – barbarism. In fact, barbarism is a good way to describe what all these films celebrate – a vicious, nightmarish world of competing wills which, as I have suggested already, tries to offer us something of a latter-day equivalent to that of Homeric heroes but without their sense of honor or piety. This is a world where questions of morality and civic virtue are pretty much irrelevant.

In Touch of Evil it also has to do to some extent with the sense of place that I mentioned last week. This is a border town. This isn’t the real Mexico. That idea sets up a rather strained irony, though one that would have been piquant for a 1950s audience, in the fact that the corruption was on the American side of the border while the representative of civic and legal probity comes from the Mexican side. Quinlan, on the Mexican side, says, “Lets get back to civilization,” while Suzy wants to get back onto the American side of the border because “I will be safe there.” Of course the opposite proves to be the case. The savagery to which civilization is contrasted is mostly on the American side, the humanity and idealism (in the form of Vargas’s respect for the rule of law) on the Mexican side.

In America, what we see is a scene of cultural collapse that matches and is perhaps meant to confirm the fall of a great man. To me it is also interesting that Welles associates that collapse with sex, drugs and rock’n'roll – the popular culture of the 1950s that he was not alone in seeing in apocalyptic terms. We can’t help noting the contrast between the raucous music played by the violent, reefer-smoking teens and the pianola in Tanya’s gypsy establishment – “It’s so old it’s new” – that evokes for Quinlan a romantic past which may have had some room for a man to be truly great in. At any rate, in hinting at what these kids portended for the popular culture that lay ahead between his time and ours, Welles could be said once again to have been ahead of his time. The fraternity of modernist film critics to whom he was a hero has a lot to answer for in paving the way for that popular culture by bringing to an end the flowering of the popular arts which took place in Hollywood between 1930 and 1960. But they were also responsible for t
he restoration of this movie to the work of art you will see tonight. I wonder if you’ll think they did us any more of a favor in the one case than in the other?

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