#321. Touch of Evil (1958)

My love for Orson Welles is rooted less in his abilities as a filmmaker than in his genius as an entertainer, as just an entertaining person, a portrait of the artist as human monument. He’s a tragic figure whose proclivities and ego and temper kept him from realizing his own potential—which is saying a lot, since with Citizen Kane he made one of the greatest films of all time and with War of the Worlds one of the most influential radio broadcasts, both of them before he was thirty, and he stole the stage in that same decade with his all-Black performance of Macbeth–he was like this great cloud of talent that glided over the entire media landscape. He wrote, directed, acted. What I’ve mentioned before is that he just had a hard time getting along, making concessions, “playing the game” of Hollywood. And he lost opportunities because of it.

            He’s a role model for me in some ways and a cautionary tale in others. The charisma, the eloquence, the charm are almost incomparable among American entertainers of his generation; but his life story (especially as it’s told by Simon Callow in the ongoing four-volume biography) is a testament to the fact that talent alone won’t account for success.

            He’s a massive figure. Somehow both enigmatic and earnest, jaded and gullible, ancient and boyish.

Something about Welles, with his big face and prostheses, always gives me the vibe of a kid in costume.

            The handful of movies he directed, as a result, strike me less as standalone works of art than as portraits of the artist and a showcasing of the talents that were always being challenged, doubted, and subverted by Hollywood and by Welles himself–what his movies bring to mind are the young musicians I knew in high school or college, the ones who were particularly talented, and you’d hear them strike these great riffs on their guitar but it all came across, finally, as shapeless talent. Talent for talent’s sake. They had a hard time forging any complete artistic thing from it.

In Welles’s directorial efforts, I see lots of free-floating talent that doesn’t quite cohere.

            Touch of Evil, like Lady from Shanghai, is a thriller adapted from the sort of pulpy crime novels Welles consumed en masse and the story elements are pretty flammable on their own: Welles as a racist cop with a bad leg, burned out and grifstruck from his wife’s murder and his own subsequent alcoholism, and Charlton Heston (in brownface) plays  Mexican drug official who, after some pseudo-procedural hijinks, reveals that Welles is crooked, that he’s been planting evidence on Mexicans to get them convicted. There’s a noirish matrix of character affiliations, double-crosses, revelations.

            It’s fairly standard genre stuff except, far as noir is concerned, it leans toward the nihilism we saw in movies like Force of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly, where it isn’t just that things end on a miserable note; they seem to suggest, rather, that this misery is the natural way of things, and that life will go on in that same miserable trend. Hold that sensibility in contrast, then, to like the gray or mildly triumphant resolutions of The Maltese Falcon or Mildred Pierce or The Postman Always Rings Twice, where there’s the feeling that bad things happen, and that some people are genuinely evil and that a good person’s virtue does nothing to spare them misfortune, but those movies don’t seem to suggest that life itself is terrible, doomed, corrupt.

Nor do they manifest, like Detour or Gun Crazy, these kinds of frenzied howls of despair from behind the camera.

            Touch of Evil falls somewhere between the doom-and-gloom nihilism of that first batch and the grim-but-hopeful mood of the second. A couple years after the movie came out, Welles directed and starred in an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Having to contend with Kafka’s own nihilism, and choosing to add a note of redemption, Welles’s biographer Simon Callow gives us his defense, in his own words, of positive endings:

“I absolutely disagree with those works of art, those novels, those films that, these days, speak about despair. I do not think that an artist may take total despair as a subject; we are too close to it in daily life. This genre of subject can be utilized only when life is less dangerous and more clearly affective.”

Welles, in conversation with Cahiers du cinema

            I liked Touch of Evil well enough as a movie and while I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the best film noir on the List, I don’t think I’d put it in my top five favorite. I don’t love it. But I wonder if I would have loved Welles’s cut.

            The studio took this movie away from Welles just as they did with Magnificent Ambersons, re-cut it, and they were slated to release a version he knew he was gonna hate.

            The version I watched has been restored and re-edited in accordance with a pleading and meticulous 58-page editing blueprint that Welles submitted to the studio as they were re-cutting. The impression I get is that this is about as close to Welles’s vision as we could get without the director’s own hand getting involved, and I was kinda relieved to come upon that section in the biography where Callow agrees with me: it’s a good movie, but Welles was never gonna lift it to greatness, even with final cut. We have Welles going about with yet another fake nose, there’s a good shootout at the end, there’s an incredibly suspenseful scene involving a man tied to a bed, and a lovely cameo by Marlene Dietrich (she plays an old friend to Welles’s boozing, corrupt, griefstruck racist cop, and there’s something about their mutually beleaguered roles that makes us remember that they’re both veterans of a brutal industry, they’d both been through the ringer at this point, and that maybe there’s less acting going on here than we think when they look with despair at everything they’ve been through). Otherwise, I didn’t find much to celebrate. Many scenes are tedious, Charlton Heston isn’t particularly interesting, and the situation with Janet Lee being trapped in a motel room feels disjointed.

            At this point I’m mostly enjoying Welles’s films as supplementary material to Callow’s multi-volume biography, which is incredible. Feels trite to say that the greatest art Orson Welles ever produced was his own life, and his persona, but that’s the vibe I’m getting from Callow’s books. And all of the movies, including Kane, feel to me like footnotes in that larger story.

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