Thursday, June 2, 2011

Noir Watch: "Touch of Evil" at Paramount w/ @PlacesLost was a good/ horrible time

Man, Touch of Evil is a complicated movie.  Charlton Heston is supposedly a Mexican narco agent, Orson Welles acts and directs and looks like he's about to keel over in every shot, Marlene Dietrich shows up as a tired fortune teller/ good-time girl and looks pretty damn good, Janet Leigh gets menaced, and for some reason Zsa Zsa Gabor is in the movie for about twenty seconds.

In this film Heston plays what he does best:  Charlton Heston.  But with a mustache.
I watched Touch of Evil for the first time around 1998 or 1999, likely on VHS from "I Love Video" on Airport, and what I really recall is that I found the scene in which Janet Leigh is menaced alone in her motel room so upsetting, I turned the movie off and went and did other things for a bit and came back to finish the movie later.  I suppose as I'd seen the movie before, I knew what was coming and it was a bit easier to manage as a viewer, but its still some fairly powerful stuff.

This time I hit the theater with our own PaulT, and we stood around for a while pondering the movie, and I think Paul's right:  its an odd fit for a straight description as noir.  But the more I think about it, if you follow the storyline of Hank Quinlan, played by Welles, its pretty much exactly a noir, its just that the story spends so much time framing the Vargas newlyweds (Heston and Leigh) as the protagonists, Quinlan plays as an antagonist when...  Quinlan is a cop trying to do good who does get in over his head thanks to his sins.

No, that is not me in the coat and hat, but I understand the confusion.
Still, not a perfect fit, but...

You can't really talk about the movie without mentioning a few things:

1)  The cinematography is just spectacular.  Russell Metty is credited as cinematographer, but its hard to imagine Welles as director didn't have some hand in the work, even if Metty does have credentials such as Spartacus.  And you have to love the opening sequence.

2)  The border issues of Mexico and the US and the statements made sound significantly less xenophobic in a lot of ways than discussions going on today in the US.  For all of Welles' intentions to play back and forth across the border and to place a Mexican cop at the forefront of the story, the casting of Heston (and you people know I love Heston) as Mike Vargas greatly complicates the movie.

3)  The sound design on the movie is interesting.  Dialog is often overlapped, something you don't see in movies much again for about 8 - 10 years, but the overlapping dialog really works, adding to the muddled mess of some scenes as Quinlan and Vargas sort out the circumstances around the crime and thena round each other.  Music plays a huge part in Janet Leigh's motel scenes, and the finale scenes with Quinlan and Vargas depend entirely upon audio.

Marlene Dietrich sees no future for you
On a second viewing, and what was a new cut of the film according to the Paramount Programmer, and the opening crawl, I once again felt like the movie deserves the name dropping it receives, despite a few rough edges and faults.  I'm still a fan, and think it works remarkably well. 

Its an interesting mess of a plot, especially as the crime only sets off a lifetime of other issues for Quinlan, and for viewers expecting a straight crime detective thriller, it doesn't play well by those rules at all, and its not surprising the studio in 1958 may have felt the material needed to be cut to meet code standards and to sell in Topeka.

Welles never lets the audience off easily, even in the final minutes of the film as characters discuss Quinlan and his foibles, and even as our hero and his lovely bride drive off into the sunset.  Nobody gets away untouched, or free of contamination, if they didn't start that way to begin with.  Its an interesting bit of movie, especially for its era.

Its hard to just label this as a "fun movie", as I feel the movie is a bit intense and can take some seriously dark turns, but its a movie worth watching, if for no other reason than Welles as Quinlan, and the interesting structure that's especially prevalent in the re-cut version I watched.  If the title of the post says "horrible" time, its that, well, gee..  its not exactly a cheery movie now, is it?

Definitely looking forward to what else the Paramount rolls our way this summer.


Paul Toohey said...

Not going to lie, now that you mention it I think I agree that if you focus on Quinlan on the "Noir-ed" is a little more noir then I originally thought.

Also not going to lie, I still think that I don't really care all that much for this film. It was good to finally see the whole thing.

The League said...

Paul, I was thinking on the way home: I don't remember you ever saying you actually LIKED a movie. We need to find one you'll enjoy.

Look at the Paramount schedule and give me a holler.

Matt A. said...

I haven't seen this new uncut version, but I still really enjoy it. Especially the whole ending bit with the radio.

It still makes me chuckle, because it reminds me of the film "Ed Wood", where Wood meets Welles. Welles makes a comment about the studio forcing him to cast Heston as a Mexican.

Paul Toohey said...

I like movies, I really do. I don't know why I just can't enjoy some of the "important" ones though.

I think if you want a guarantee that I'll like the movie, the first Summer Film Series I'm guaranteed to like might be Road House/Red Dawn double feature...OK, I'd also like the Rear Window/Catch a Thief...