(A copy of notes distributed for the edification of all at the inaugural meeting of the Dartmouth Park Film Club, February 2nd 2008. SJF curating, CNAG, NA, J (“TLOK”) L in attendence )
Dir: Orson Welles
There’s very little to say about Touch Evil that hasn’t been said a million times. The opening crane shot, which is rightly famous (and also, incidentally, the perfect example of Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: if you watch a board meeting and a bomb goes off, that’s a thrill. If you see a bomb attached to the bottom of a boardroom table, then watch a board meeting take place, that’s suspense). The general air of weirdness, best summed up by Charlton Heston playing a Mexican. The incredible performance given by Welles himself, and the riveting sight of the boy wonder in physical decline. The decision to make a great film out of the worst script available. The brilliant last line. The studio interference.
What I’ve always found interesting about the film, apart from all of the above, obviously, is that it seems a film out of time. With its almost oppressively flamboyant air of directorial flamboyance, technical brilliance, obsession with the auteur figure, love-hate relationship with genre, narrative implausability (pretty much to the point of being downright incomprehensible), spinning moral compass, almost comic air of sexual and social perversity and combination of grandeur and self-loathing, Touch of Evil is basically the earliest example of 1970’s cinema. It’s a Jim Thomson novel adapted by Paul Schrader and shot by Coppola, with Altman on sound. Which is, y’know, A Very Good Thing.
Interestingly enough, Welles himself put his problems with the Hollywood system (in particular on this film) down to the amount of time he took editing, which repeatedly resulted in final cuts being taken out of his hands. We can only imagine what we might have produced if he’d been born twenty years later and indulged even half as much as Altman, Malick, Coppola or, terrifyingly, Cimino.
Perhaps the most interesting parrallel, though, is with a Sam Peckinpah film, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Both present the US/ Mexican borderland a kind of spiritual vortex, corroding those who are in contact with it for too long, but what is more interesting is that both films are the last testament of Hollywood outsiders. Bring Me…has been called “a self-portait in black” – it’s a howl of despair by an artist who sees himself as a bartender in a whorehouse, humiliated by his need for cash. Welles has never struck me as one for a howl of despair, much less nihilism, but if their was ever a triumphant smirk of despair, Touch of Evil is it. It’s a film about corruption, but also (as most films featuring Welles are) about Welles. And the result of that math is Quinlan, the apex of the noir anti-hero (and, incidentally, still living in the character of Tim Willocks’ Captain Clarence Jefferson in the tremendous Bad City Bluesand Blood Stained Kings) a brilliant man so far from civilisation for so long that he inspires nothing but disgust in anyone who isnt as corrupt as he is, morally and physically (and let’s face it, half the thrill of Quinlan is the physicality: Welles doesn’t hide his matinee idol-turned-Kurtz in the darkness to spare him the self-loathing (as Coppolla did with Brando), he puts the spotlight on him glories in it. And it’s himself).
Finally, it’s all about Welles, and I’ll avoid the temptation to end cheesily on Marlene Deitrich’s famous description of Quinlan here, but instead quote Janet Leigh, who said of the making of the film, in what could have been a description of Welles career and life:
“Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.”